For a family camping tent, it is essential that it is weather-resistant, in other words waterproof. So what is the best tent fabric regarding this and other criteria? Here I give some basic information covering the fabric issue.
Tent fabric comparison
The most important parts of a tent are its fly and floor. These elements are supposed to be waterproof, and this holds also for the lower sections of tents’ walls if the fly is not a full-coverage type.
Typically the waterproof tent fabric can be one of these:
- UV-Tex 5.
- Canvas (and poly-canvas).
- Cuben fiber.
Only the first five are of importance for the family camping tents which you have here in the site. The other three are used either for smaller tents designed for professionals, or for winter tents. Some of the synthetic materials do not need the coating to become waterproof.
In general, nylon is stronger and more abrasion resistant than polyester, but it can absorb some water and this is not so with polyester. Being stronger, nylon tent materials can be lighter, so you can see this material used in backpacking tents. The usual family camping tents are typically polyester or less frequently canvas.
Polyethylene is used mainly for tent floors. So you have such thick floors in some Coleman tents. It is heavy, but it is durable, so it is good to have the floor built from this material because you basically do not need a footprint when you have this material on the floor. This material is waterproof itself, it doesn’t need coating.
UV-Tex 5 fabric is a sort of polyester, and tents with such a material are cooler because the material reflects more sunlight. If you camp frequently and throughout the year, this is a material to consider.
Synthetic materials vs canvas
- They are not breathable (except those that are, like the mentioned Gore-Tex). So you guess, you have to fight with condensation.
- Those synthetic materials are bad insulators. When it is cold outside, it is cold inside, and when it is warm outside the same is inside.
- They are thin, but this means they are noisy in the wind. This can be annoying.
- Quite often they do not smell good.
- Oh yes, some are known to cause cancer.
- But these materials are usually inexpensive.
- They are lightweight.
- They dry quickly.
- They do not need much maintenance.
- They are not supposed to be flammable. See a video in my separate text if you do not believe it.
- These materials absorb water.
- They are heavy.
- They need more care and maintenance.
- They are expensive.
- It would be hard to imagine a modern backpacker with a canvas tent.
- But these tents’ materials are breathable. They are great for desert camping.
- No issues with condensation.
- They insulate much better.
- Being heavy they are not noisy.
- They are more resistant to UV rays.
Canvas absorbs the water so it must be treated in such a way as to remain breathable. So you have various waterproofing technics which should make it more or less waterproof and cause water beading. In general, impregnation is used for cotton threads and it becomes waterproof but it remains breathable.
Sometimes it is mixed with polyester and this combination is known as poly-canvas. It is supposed to have the best (and the worst) of both materials. You can see an excellent example of this poly-canvas type in the Crua Loj 6 insulated tent.
See this great Kodiak 8 person tent as a nice example of a canvas tent:
The PU coating is the most common coating for budget tents, i.e., this is the cheapest waterproofing method and it is used in most of the family camping tents presented in this site. When exposed to visible light, this coating may in time turn to yellow or reddish brown, but this still doesn’t affect its waterproofing properties.
But higher-energy UV radiation can cause chemical reactions in the foam so it may become non-waterproof over time.
Silicone coating – SilNylon
Silicone applied to nylon is what is usually called the SilNylon. In this technology, a thin woven fabric is impregnated by liquid silicone from both sides. The silicone adds to the strength of the fabric and makes it highly waterproof. Such materials are not breathable of course.
The SilNylon is used in higher quality tents and it is very stable regarding the UV radiation and temperature variations. This is an expensive material and you will see this in the prices of tents where it is used.
In some cases, you have silicone applied from outside and PU coating from inside. This is cheaper and you still have silicone outside where it is most needed. But such a combination results in a heavier material than when you have silicone on both sides. Yet another reason for such a combination is that seams of a PU coated material are far easier to tape, and this is done from inside as usual.
This is a high-performance non-woven fabric with an excellent resistance to ultraviolet light. This is the lightest and strongest of all waterproof outdoor materials. It is around half the weight of the SilNylon fabric. It does not stretch and it is translucent. Such materials are very expensive and you will not see them in family camping tents.
All is known about this material which is the only breathable in the synthetic materials mentioned above. This material is used mainly in 4-season tents which are then used by professionals, and you will not see it in family camping tens. As you guess, such tents are very expensive.
Regardless how waterproof the tent fabric is, if the seams are not sealed you do not have a waterproof tent. What you can see in the descriptions of some waterproof items is the following terminology:
- Critically taped seams. In this case, only exposed seams are sealed. This is typical for waterproof jackets, but not so frequent in tents.
- Fully taped seams. The meaning should be obvious, all seams are taped. A fully waterproof tent must have this in the specifications.
- Welded seams. In this case, the pieces of material are fused together with the help of heat and pressure. This cannot work with all materials, so you have it in thermoplastics materials. The material itself is used as the fastener to hold the seam together. This technology is used typically for tent floors made from polyethylene mentioned above, and you have it in the Coleman tents presented here on the site, see for example this Coleman Red Canyon 8 tent.
How much waterproofness to expect
The tents presented here on the site are with the waterproofness rating typically in the range 600 – 3000 mm. To better understand the meaning, you should know that an ordinary umbrella is around 400 mm. So for example, you have 600 mm in this Core 6 Dome tent, and the Coleman Sundome 6. but you have 1800 mm in the Kelty Trail Ridge 6 tent.
The bigger the number you should expect in the floor material than in the fly. So in this Marmot Limestone 6 tent, you have a 3000 mm rating for the floor, which is very impressive, and 1500 mm for the fly. More about waterproof rating please see in my separate text.
So this was about tent materials, you might want to read also about footprints, so please follow this link.
Thank you for reading. Please use the comment box below in the case of question or comment. Have a nice day.
This is incredible resource. Thank you. I’ve been doing my own research to get a family tent- husband and I and currently a 2 and 4 year old. Hoping to find something that will last(we are not interested in cheap/inexpensive. Happy to invest in long lasting quality) that can be set up easily (even by one), and here’s the clincher… Avoids use Of fire Retardants. It seems harder to come by those? Do you have any thoughts or suggestions.
Also we live in AZ so climate range is cold to extremely hot. Haha
Thanks for your work.
Hi Emily, thank you for the kind words. I normally always provide information about fire retardants whenever they are provided by the manufacturer. So you will see this mentioned in the descriptions of some of the tents. It is not possible to know what the situation is with the tents where fire retardants are not explicitly mentioned. In such cases, I would say it is best to ask the manufacturer directly.
As for the climate you mentioned, I would say it is best to go for a canvas camping tent. There are many great options. Let me know if this would be your choice, then I can suggest some of them.
Ralph Flores says
what lengths and width can get it in?
I am afraid I do not understand your question.
John Sumpter says
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Many thanks for the kind words. Yes I add texts here very regularly. Best regards.