Tent fabrics

Tents are made out of a wide range of fabrics these days, not just traditional canvas. Below you'll find details and benefits of each.

Cotton canvas tents

Cotton tents

At one time tents were simple: They were all made of canvas, a traditional 100 per cent cotton fabric. Cotton is a great material for making superior tents, but it’s relatively rare today.

Its main disadvantage is its weight compared with modern, manmade fabrics. But you can’t beat the wonderful smell inside a traditional cotton tent and it’s the best fabric for keeping you cool on hot days and warm during cold nights.

The cotton naturally breathes, so it is less prone to condensation than modern fabrics. As a result, you’ll often find cotton tents don’t bother with inner tents in the sleeping areas.

Why does my new cotton tent leak?

One oddity of cotton canvas can catch out the innocent beginner - brand new cotton tents usually leak!

Sounds drastic doesn’t it? It isn’t really. New cotton canvas tents need to go through a process called weathering. It's simple to avoid a soaking though, just put up the tent when rain is forecast and wait for the clouds to open.

The tent will get wet, some drips will come through and all the cotton fibres in the weave will swell and nestle into each other. The result? A perfectly waterproof tent and one that will give years and years of good service if it is looked after.

Some tents will need two or three weatherings before every last drip is eliminated. Be patient, those last few drips will go unless of course, there's a hole somewhere that needs to be fixed. You can, speed up the process and replace the rain with a hose pipe or a watering can.

Some cotton tents have a weather-proof coating so don't need weathering. Be careful, though, this may remove the breathability of the fabric which is one of cotton's main advantages.

PVC coated canvas tents

PVC coated canvas

Larger frame tents and many trailer tents will be made from cotton canvas but will have a heavy Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) coating on the roof to make them strong and waterproof. 

The only drawback of this is the added weight and a slight tendency for condensation for form on the plastic coated fabric. Condensation can be a problem with any coated fabric and that’s why ventilation is so important in tents. 

Many newcomers to camping mistake condensation for a leaky tent but if you buy a tent with good ventilators and use them correctly your tent should stay dry and comfortable.

Polycotton tent

Polycotton canvas tents

Just as with shirts, 100 per cent cotton tents have mostly been replaced by tents made from a mixture known as polycotton. 

This natural cotton blended with polyester can give a lighter fabric with the same strength. Like cotton, it can be used uncoated but normally will be treated to make it repel water.

Polyester tent

Polyester tents

This common fabric for tents comes with a variety of different coatings. Many tent manufacturers offer their own coatings with different names. 

What you need to look for is a breathable coating that lets air but not moisture through. This fabric is generally more durable than nylon but everything we’ve said about nylon (below) pretty much applies to polyester tent fabrics. Among the factors that make it perhaps the most popular tent fabric is that it doesn’t shrink or get baggy when wet, and it is far less affected by sunlight.

Nylon tents

Nylon tent

Small tents are often made of nylon. Individual nylon fibres do not absorb water and generally this means the fabric can be made much lighter. 

The cheapest and simplest tents are made from nylon but so are the most expensive tents destined for expedition use, the difference is in the coatings.

Untreated nylon can be used for tents but usually it will be coated. The coating may be acrylic, polyurethane (PU) or silicone.

Quality and durability of these coatings varies and, as with most things in life, better coatings are more expensive. Acrylic is usually cheapest and silicone, which offers the best protection, is more expensive.

Often the fine weave of a nylon tent will be reinforced with a larger ‘rip-stop’ net pattern in the weave. Think ladies ‘nylons’ (as they used to be called) or tights. Tights ‘ladder’ very easily and you’d hate a similar thing to happen to your tent fabric. The ‘rip-stop’ pattern of thicker threads allows most of the fabric to be extremely thin – and hence lightweight – but the thicker areas prevent a tear ‘laddering’ (or ‘propagating through’) the fabric if a small hole is made in it.

When a nylon tent gets damp the fabric slackens, so you may need to tighten your guy lines to keep it in good shape.

Nylon is attacked by ultra violet light so strong sunlight can shorten the life of your tent. Special light filter coatings reduce this effect but long exposure on bright summer days will still reduce the life of a nylon tent.

Fire bucket

A tent on fire

No tent fabric is fireproof. Today most tent makers claim their fabrics are fire retardant but all tents will burn and most will burn remarkably quickly.

That’s the reason you should never use any equipment with open flames in a tent and, however romantic you think it may be, never, ever use candles in or near a tent. 

If your tent does catch fire there is only one thing to do. Get everybody out and get clear of the tent as quickly as possible. Save yourself and worry about the tent later. 

Traditional tent campers adopt an excellent habit – they all keep a fire-bucket full of water or sand outside their tent. Nothing is more effective if a tent does catch fire than half a dozen good neighbours each throwing their own bucket of water on the blaze.

The Club has a rule that units should always be 6 metres apart from each other. The law states that all units should be no closer than 3 metres apart to help prevent fires from spreading.

Let's move onto poles, groundsheets and pegs

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