As with other areas of tent design, choosing the right fabric requires careful consideration. It is somewhat like a balancing act to complement form with its function and coming up with a design is not an easy feat.
Because each kind of material has its own set of benefits and drawbacks, picking the "perfect" fabric boils down to determining which trade-offs you are willing to accept. It is a widespread misconception that investing more money in an expensive product ensures that you will get the "greatest" and longest-lasting version of that thing. It's possible in the case with working tools such as hammers, wrench and many more, but when it comes to textiles and tents, there is no clear winner and the situation with tents is that even the most basic four-season tent should be able to withstand gusts that would bring down an expensive top-of-the-line tent designed for thru-hikers. This means that choosing what kind of fabric designers use in tents is very crucial and must first expressly aim at what is the purpose of the product before they can make a decision. People that are interested in buying tents also face the same challenges. Will you be camping on exposed mountains, are you willing to run the risk of perishing if your tent is blown away in a storm? Are you planning to seek shelter in your vehicle as soon as it begins to sprinkle outside? After the specifications have been determined, the best option for "which tent" you're going to use depending on its purpose will often become apparent and deciding which one to choose is very important while of course, still not setting aside as to what fabrics had been used to make the tent.
Adding more, the kind of tent that you want to get will almost definitely serve as a determining factor in regards to the fabric that you will end up selecting. This article is not meant to serve as a shopping guide, rather, its purpose is to offer readers and outdoor geeks like us with a very fundamental level of awareness of the advantages and disadvantages of the three fabrics that are the most often used in the construction of tents and tarps which are nylon, polyester, and DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric, formerly known as Cuben Fiber).
Although there is a considerable vast supply of tents in the market to choose from, it is important to take note that there are plenty of them that you can buy online such as on amazon that are offered to be economical; however, we remind you to be cautious as some may be made with less performance-based fabrics.
Let’s start with the first,
The vast majority of tents are constructed out of nylon, making it the most popular tent material. During the 1930s, DuPont was the first company to create this material, and it saw considerable application in the construction of parachutes during World War II. It became the standard for the vast majority of things designed for use in the great outdoors, from tents to clothing. This may be attributed to its favorable strength-to-weight ratio as well as its superior abrasion resistance and relatively inexpensive cost.
The strength of Nylon
The fact that nylon has a considerably superior ratio of strength to weight than polyester is the primary reason why most tents are constructed out of nylon rather than polyester. Nylon gets a significant portion of its durability from the natural stretchiness of the material, which may be both a benefit and a drawback. Since nylon is flexible, the strain placed on it is dispersed across a broader area than it would be with a fabric that is less elastic, in other words it is known as to be "more stable". For instance, if a guy point were attached in the middle of a fabric panel on a tent's fly on a 1" x 1" reinforcement, the fabric surrounding the guy point would stretch, and the stress of the guy line being pulled would be distributed over a much larger area than just the 1" x 1" reinforcement. This would prevent the guy point from tearing the surrounding fabric. If the fabric, on the other hand, does not stretch, all of the force will be focused at the reinforcement, which will result in significantly increased stress on the fabric and an increased probability that it will rupture. When it comes to the design of a tent, one advantage of using fabric that stretches is that it works better for three-dimensional shaped panels.
The stretchiness of nylon, however, comes with a drawback. Because the majority of the wrinkling in the fly is the result of nylon stretching along its bias. This problem may be mitigated by using fabric that does not stretch as much and reduces the issue.
Nylon’s resistance to abrasion
Among all textiles, nylon by far, has the highest resistance to abrasion. Abrasion is something that should be taken into mind more often in the design of clothing, but there are likely to be areas of your tent that are subject to it like floor, pole ends and clips. If the cloth begins to fray to the point that it becomes weakened, these areas might become failure sites and can result in the slowly deteriorating parts of the tent.
Nylon's UV Damage
The effects of ultraviolet light may hasten the deterioration of nylon. This is largely a concern for mountaineers, since they are the ones that utilize their gear at higher altitudes, which have a higher UV index. It also causes problems with the tent's longevity over the long run for core customers who use their tents often throughout the year for a number of years. When left in the sun for longer lengths of time, polyester and DCF deteriorate at a slower rate than nylon does. However, a heavier cloth will be less likely to be damaged by ultraviolet radiation than a lighter version of the same thing. Because of their larger diameter, the innermost portions of the fibers are shielded from the harmful effects of sunlight. The inside will maintain its integrity for a longer period of time, even while the outside deteriorates. UV light is able to reach a greater depth in fibers with a smaller diameter. There are fabric treatments created to decrease the impacts of ultraviolet radiation on nylon, but even for users who handle and store their tent with care, UV degradation will probably still be the element that determines how long a tent will last.
Nylon’s Water Absorption
Water is absorbed by nylon, which results in a number of issues. When it becomes wet, nylon will expand, and it will also weigh more. In the outdoors, this implies that a nylon fly will sag when exposed to moisture either from precipitation or high humidity, which translates to the need to make late-night visits outside to tension the fly to prevent it from drooping onto the tent body. To reiterate, coatings may be used to assist and reduce this problem. Although polyester also absorbs some water, it does so to a considerably lesser extent than nylon does and is able to keep its tension even when wet.
Nylon has been the go to material that offers durability and strength over the years for backpacking gears. On our part, we have decided to update the materials used for our tents. One significant change is the fabric used for our popular two person tent. We had changed the overall material used before which was 68D Ripstop polyester to 20D/40D Ripstop Sil-Nylon.
The performance of Sil-Nylon is superior to that of its predecessor fabric in terms of water resistance, strength to UV degradation, and is way lighter.
Polyester has recently experienced something of a renaissance, despite the fact that it was once relegated to the realm of low-cost and car-camping tents due to the scarcity of high-quality formulations. This is because recent advancements in high-end polyesters, particularly on the lightweight end of the spectrum, have significantly improved its once dismal strength to weight ratio. Although we still use nylon for the majority of our tents, polyester offers a number of benefits that make it an attractive alternative for particular applications, and its usage is undeniably growing more prevalent.
Polyester’s Tear Strength
When compared to nylons of the same weight, polyester often has a lesser tear strength than nylons. When trying to attain a level of strength that is equivalent to that of nylon, designers often choose to utilize polyester that is heavier and thicker. Newer polyester fabrics, on the other hand, have a strength that is far superior to that of their older counterparts, and these newer polyester textiles are increasingly appearing on the market in lightweight tents. Because the fabric of lightweight tarp and mid-style shelters is not subjected to as much strain as it is in conventional tents, polyester has become a particularly popular choice for making these types of shelters.
Polyester has far less flexibility and stretches less than nylon, and flies constructed of polyester pitch well owing to the material's stability. Polyester flies may be manufactured into almost any shape. This is especially true in environments that are very humid or rainy, since the absorption of water by nylon may cause the flysheet to become droopy and make it harder to set up the tent. Despite the fact that we have some anecdotal evidence to back up our claims, we haven't been able to conclude that the benefits of lightweight polymers outweigh the drawbacks of having a lower strength-to-weight ratio. However, we are working hard to collect some actual data in the near future so that we can definitively answer this question.
Polyester’s resistance to UV
It is a commonly held belief that polyester has a higher level of UV resistance than nylon. There haven't been many studies done directly comparing the lightweight polyester and nylon textiles used in tents, although studies indicate that polyester in general is in fact significantly more UV-resistant than nylon.
However, the thickness of the fabric and the color of the fabric are two important factors that influence whether or not it is resistant to ultraviolet light. This includes polyester. When it comes to the long-term UV protection of a fabric, the color of the fabric as well as its denier may be more important than the composition of the fibers used to manufacture it, particularly for lightweight textiles.
It wasn't until very recently that lightweight polyester was able to attain enough strength at the low weights customers want in the majority of high-performance tents. Poly is a common fabric for sails and other applications where minimal stretch is a requirement. Although polyester has a lot of potential for usage in tents, we will continue to rely mostly on nylon for the time being until we have conducted sufficient testing to be certain that the benefits of poly exceed the downsides of nylon.
DYNEEMA COMPOSITE FABRIC
When it comes to tent textiles, the Dyneema Composite Fabric, often known as DCF, is the up-and-coming material, the kind of “the new kid on the block”. It was once known as Dyneema Composite Fabric but was rebranded as Cuben Fiber when the company that manufactures the material, Cubic Tech, was purchased by Dyneema. Cuben Fiber was the original name. The term "Cuben Fiber'' is still often used to refer to the material.
To begin, we are well aware that there are some individuals who hold the opinion that DCF is not legally considered to be a fabric. We say this because there are purists who will correct us if we're wrong about this. If you want to be coy about it, then yes, it is in fact a composite made up of a nonwoven ultra high molecular weight polyethylene matrix that has been laminated between two layers of polyethylene terephthalate film. If you want to be more direct, then no, it is not a conventional fabric. But because it's used interchangeably with woven textiles in outdoor gear, we'll group it in with the fabrics here. To create DCF, Dyneema fibers are placed between two layers of film during the manufacturing process that is similar to Mylar. Dyneema strands are often spread out in a 90-degree angle pattern since they are not woven.
Dyneema is a trademark name for ultra high molecular weight polyethylene, which is also known as UHMWPE. This kind of polyethylene is very durable despite its lightweight. On a weight-for-tear basis, no other material that is presently utilized in tents even comes close to matching the tear strength of DCF. Therefore, DCF textiles are capable of achieving the same level of strength as nylon while maintaining a much lower weight. Despite its strength, DCF almost lacks any degree of stretch. Because it does not stretch and because it has a high strength-to-weight ratio, Dyneema is an extremely attractive material for use in sails as well as in a wide variety of industrial applications.
However, there are several restrictions on DCF's capabilities. Due to the frequent occurrence of seam failure caused by needle hole expansion in films and nonwovens, seams need to be bonded and/or hot taped to prevent failure. Tape adhesives are often a source of weakness and have the potential to deteriorate before the rest of the shelter does. In order to reduce the amount of time that the tape is exposed to UV radiation, it is recommended that the tape be applied on the inside of the product, since this is the practice followed by the vast majority of producers.
DYNEEMA’s Waterproofing capacity
DCF is naturally waterproof and does not absorb any water, whereas nylon and polyester woven require the application of a chemical coating typically PU, silicone, or PE in order to be waterproof. The elimination of coatings results in a final fabric that is lighter and has a longer lifespan since coatings add weight and are prone to failure.
DYNEEMA’s resistance to UV
In comparison to nylon, the UV resistance of DCF is much higher. In contrast to nylon, it will not become brittle and deteriorate when repeatedly exposed to the sun.
DYNEEMA’s resistance to abrasion
Abrasion resistance is the DCF system's weak spot in terms of its functioning capabilities. Because the outside layer of DCF is really Mylar, it is particularly susceptible to abrasion. DCF stuff bags don't last nearly as long as nylon ones, and the same is true for DCF backpacks. Ultralight devotees may have observed this before. This is not much of a problem for the majority of shelter applications, particularly the straightforward tarps that are preferred by the community of thru-hikers. When organizations employ DCF in conventional tent building, there is the potential for this to become an issue. When a tent is being buffeted by wind, the tent pole clips and pole hubs may be more than abrasive enough to wear through a DCF fly. This is particularly true in sandy places, where grit intensifies the effects of abrasion, and can cause the fly to wear through much more quickly. DCF will only be replaced for nylon in presently available double-wall tent designs as a UL statement piece, and will only be bought by individuals with a lot of money but not enough time to do their study, unless the concerns with abrasion resistance can be overcome. It is difficult to imagine true double-wall semi- or fully-freestanding DCF tents being a viable option for ultralight hikers when purpose-built DCF shelters from cottage brands weigh less, provide significantly more livable space, and are stronger, all at about half the price. This is because switching out nylon for DCF in pre-existing double wall tent designs can push the price close to $1000.
DCF is a high-end futuristic material that comes with an accompanying high price tag. A high-quality nylon that costs $5 per yard at wholesale is regarded to be pricey. As a point of reference, the cost of DCF ranges between $20 and $30 a yard! Because of this, DCF is not often seen in stores who sell directly to consumers. It's doubtful that the price will go down until someone comes out with a product that can compete with DCF's strength to weight ratio. Many customers find the price to be unreasonably high, which is particularly problematic when taking into account the fact that the potential weight savings is decreasing due to the development of lighter-weight nylons.
DCF is not a magic bullet that will solve all of your durability problems with lightweight shelters. However, it does represent a very substantial step forward in terms of the materials used for housing. Although its uses are rather limited owing to the exorbitant cost of the material and the fact that it has a low abrasion resistance, it excels in specific areas more than any other material now available. As ultralight backpacking continues to gain popularity, you can anticipate seeing more of it in the years to come.
Shelter and tent design is not an easy feat and as much as possible, is constructed down to what the science is behind its materials. There are no ideal answers, and every decision requires making compromises in at least one area. Most outdoor applications may benefit from nylon's well-balanced properties, yet like any other material it has its drawbacks. Fabric weaving and coating technologies have improved, but nothing revolutionary is expected in the near future, so we'll have to deal with what we've got for the time being.
Hopefully we have given you a better idea of the types of materials used to make tents, so that you can make a more informed decision about what you want to get when you go camping again. Keep up the hikes and don't forget to have fun out there. Cheers!