A survival tent is a necessity when you’re camping or bugging out in the wilderness. The majority of tents have two layers: an inner and outer layer. In the inner layer, there is a living or sleeping compartment. The outer layer is designed to repel moisture/rain. Having two layers provides better insulation and inhibits condensation.
Most tents are manufactured using any of these three materials, cotton, polyester, or nylon. Some tents are built using a combination of these materials.
Which survival tent material is best? Read on to learn about the pros and cons of each fabric.
Cotton or Canvas
At a point in time, canvas was the traditional fabric used in making tents. It was originally made using hemp. However, most canvas tents today are built using cotton. So when you see a tent advertised as ‘made from canvas’ it’s likely made of cotton. Cotton is a superior fabric for constructing superior tents, but it is relatively expensive.
In addition, canvas tents require weather proofing before you can use them. The process is simple. Simply hose down your tent in the back yard and leave it out to dry in the sun. Ensure the seams and zips are drenched as well. Make sure the tent is sufficiently soaked. You may notice some drips coming through the cotton fibers. As the cotton fibers expand, they will fill in these holes. After drying it thoroughly in the sun, neatly roll and put away the tent. Some tents require up to three weathering procedures before the drip is entirely eliminated.
Smell- Head inside a new cotton tent and you will be immediately greeted by a pleasant smell.
Fabric- Cotton is a breathable material. As a result, it is less susceptible to condensation.
Insulation- This is an extremely effective insulation material. On warm days, the inside temperature will feel cool and comfortable. Cold nights will feel warm and not so chilly.
Noise- Cotton is a heavier fabric compared to man-made materials. This makes the tent quieter, especially on windy days.
UV Rays- Cotton is a durable fabric, capable of withstanding the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays for a long time.
Weight- Cotton or canvas is a bulky and heavy material. If you have to transport a cotton tent by hand across rough terrain, this could pose a problem. The weight can also make pitching the tent a lot harder (more work).
Weathering- Cotton canvas needs to be ‘weathered’ before you can use it. To weather your survival tent, douse it with your garden hose or leave it outside in the rain for a good soak. The canvas material will expand as it absorbs the water. The natural holes in the fabric stitching will also fill in. Then leave it out to dry in the sun. Without undertaking these steps, your tent may develop leaks.
Maintenance- Canvas/cotton tents need more maintenance. After using the tent, you must wipe it clean and dry it, before putting it away. The clean-up process is longer. Without proper maintenance, mold and mildew will develop in the tent.
Tearing- Depending on the thickness, cotton can easily snag and tear. The tear may quickly turn into a large rip.
Cost- Canvas/cotton tents cost more than those made using man-made fabrics.
Treatments and Coatings on Cotton/Canvas Tents
Some cotton/canvas tent manufacturers apply a coat of waterproofing treatment. This helps the survival tent retain some of its breathability. With repeated use, the waterproofing will wear off. Keep in mind, that canvas tents have a natural waterproof quality provided you weather it correctly. They’re also UV resistant.
Coated cotton survival tent is ideal for a family camping expeditions where the campsite expects you to leave by a certain time in the morning.
Poly-Cotton Canvas Tents
These are tents made from cotton with polyester weaved into it. Poly-cotton tents have replaced 100% canvas/cotton tents.
This blended fabric is lighter but has the same strength. Poly-cotton tents are usually coated with a sealant to repel water. It boasts all the advantages of a cotton/canvas and all-polyester tents. These tents are also more resistant to mold and mildew. The risk of developing tears and rips are greatly reduced.
Poly-cotton tents have similar drawbacks as pure cotton tents such as cost, and maintenance.
The majority of tents in the market are made using polyester. This is a man-made fabric, available in several weights and with different types of coatings. These coatings are assigned brand names by their respective manufacturers, i.e. Protex, Hydrofilm, Robens Hydro Tex, etc.
A polyester survival tent is resistant to shrinking and stretching. Specialist coatings are applied (depending on the manufacturer) to make these tents UV stable. Higher quality polyester tents are designed with a rip-stop weave to stop tearing. This is evident in the cross-hatching weave.
Polyester tents are very durable, more so than nylon. It’s also less affected by UV light.
The cost of the tent will vary according to the thickness of the polyester fabric and coating. If you want a top-notch polyester tent with high quality sealants, you can pay a hefty price. A basic polyester tent is thin and lightweight, with no sealant. As a result, the cost can vary greatly.
Nylon is another man-made fabric. These are the simplest and often the cheapest tents available in the market. Nevertheless, some of the most expensive tents are also made from nylon and often feature top-notch coatings. They’re typically coated with polyurethane, silicone, or acrylic.
Nylon tents are lightweight. They are given special coatings which make them UV-resistant. These tents are also durable. Top-of-the-line nylon tents are made using ‘ripstop’ mesh. This threading pattern enables the manufacturer to make very thin and light tents but also inhibit tearing.
If a small hole appears in your nylon tent, it will ‘ladder’ up. This means the hole will propagate across the material very quickly.. Investing in a nylon tent with ripstop fabric is worth it in the long run.
Nylon tents are sensitive to UV light. Prolonged exposure may shorten the lifespan of your survival tent. Some manufacturers apply special light filter sealant to reduce the effects of UV, but this will eventually wear out with time.
During periods of rains, your nylon tent will dampen and slacken. To prevent this, tighten the guy lines to maintain the tent’s shape.
Composite Material Tents
These are the latest innovations in tent technology. Most expedition tents are made from composite materials. They are laminated polymers, also called composite textiles. An example is Terra Nova’s ULTRA. They use UHMWPE or ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene to coat the sides of the tent. This results in a lightweight material that is also quite robust.
Composite materials are also sold as brand fabrics. These are fabrics that are engineered using a combination of materials and or treatments. Listed below, are some examples of popular brand tent fabrics:
- Coleman WeatherTec- Made from polyester, designed to withstand all types of weather.
- Outwell AirTex- A polycotton fabric treated to force water off the tent.
- Robens HydroTex® LT 40D- This is a silicon coated tent, with a nylon ripstop flysheet, and a poly urethane internal coating.
Engineered Vinyl Fabric
This is a top choice for expedition and camping enthusiasts. Engineered vinyl is an advanced, high performance textile. This is a very durable material, capable of withstanding rain and snow.
A Note about Hydrostatic Head Design
This is a measure used to determine the water resistance capability of your survival tent material. It measures the column of water a fabric can withstand before the liquid begins to leak through the fabric weave. A fabric with a 5000 mm Hydrostatic Head is a fabric that can endure a water column of up to 5000mm. In other words, it is the measure of water pressure on a 5000 mm tall column of water.
Generally, the bigger the Hydrostatic Head value, the higher the water resistance in the fabric. This means your tent can withstand a lot of water pressure before it starts leaking.
What’s the best Hydrostatic Head value for your tent?
A camping tent with a HH value of 3000 mm will keep you very dry. However, the HH value isn’t the only thing that’s going to keep you dry. The seams and zipper on your tent have to be intact. The entry point of your tent must be waterproofed as well.
What is the best survival tent fabric?
Cotton/canvas, nylon, poly-cotton, polyester, and composite materials all have properties which make them suitable for bugging out, camping, and professional expeditions. Each material also has its own drawbacks.
Your conclusion about which is the best tent fabric will depend on why you need the tent in the first place. If you need a tent for family camping adventures, then consider tents with insulating properties. Cotton and poly-cotton tents are best, especially if you will be traveling to the campsite with a vehicle.
If you’re heading out for a backpacking and weekend camping session, then consider tents made from man-made fabrics like nylon or polyester. These are easier and faster to set up and take down then cotton tents. You can fold it away neatly into your backpack. A survival tent that maintains a balance between budget, need, and quality, is the best choice.