Waterproof Tent Materials: Everything You Need to Know

Apr. 26, 2022

If you're like me, you most likely started out as a hiker with a fairly cheap tent. That tent fabric is about as waterproof as a slice of Swiss cheese, and no amount of waterproof tent spray will save it. I made a mistake.

I bought a lot of my early camping and hiking gear, but didn't fully understand what made them waterproof. More importantly, I didn't have any basis for understanding what made one item good at waterproofing and another not. You might want to know something similar.

 

Contents

1. What materials are used for tents?

2. What is the best tent fabric?

3. Sealing tent seams

4. Tent floor and footprints

 

What is a waterproof mountaineering tent made of? What sets one apart from the other? How can you be sure you won't get ripped off when you buy one?

I have gained an in-depth understanding of waterproof gear. Today I want to share it with you to help you on your trip!


Waterproof Tent Materials: Everything You Need to Know

Camping Tents

 

What materials are used for tents?

Today, you do have 3 solid choices when it comes to tent fabrics or materials. Two of them are very similar in many ways, and the third is an alien outlier.

1. Nylon

2. Polyester

3. Polyester film laminate (cubic)

Nylon, the same material used in many of the ugly fashion inventions of the 90s, is arguably the most popular tent fabric. It is a completely man-made fabric that is affordable, durable and relatively lightweight. If I had to guess, I would say that 60% of modern tents are made of nylon.

Polyester is slightly more expensive than nylon and less common. In most respects, they are essentially similar in terms of tent creation. However, polyester may be slightly lighter in some implementations, but much depends on the manufacturer's construction methods and the intended use of their gear by the user.

 

What is the best tent fabric?

To a large extent, I think polyester and nylon tents are essentially equal for everyone, except the ultra-hiker.

Last but not least, cuben fibers are now called polyester film composites. cuben fibers started out as a lightweight polyester film plastic sandwich with spectra fibers sandwiched between them. This stuff is insanely strong and insanely lightweight!

A note about denier: Denier refers to the thickness of the polyester or nylon fabric. 10 denier weighs about the same, while 200-300 denier is equivalent to a car seat belt or more. Things like the bottom of the tent (where it touches the ground) should be made of a stronger fabric (higher denier), while other parts like rain flies can be made of ultra-light fabrics in the 10-15 denier range.

Polyester film laminate is also very expensive, and only small cottage industry manufacturers use it. Why? Because most hikers don't like the high cost, the weakness of punctures, or the strange crinkly sound and feel of plastic bag-like materials.

Polyester film laminate is popular among hardy ultralight hikers and users of cubic fiber tents who are fully aware of the material and its limitations/drawbacks. Not recommended for beginners.

 

Sealing tent seams

Great, so now we've found some good waterproof fabrics. It's time to sew the tent!

The only problem with ...... is that when you sew a tent, it puts thousands of little pin holes in the waterproof silnylon or silpoly. These little holes do leak and can cause you headaches if you don't fix them!

In order to stop leaks around the seams used to sew a waterproof tent together, a process commonly known as "seam sealing" must be performed. Seam sealing uses one of several waterproofing methods to plug these pinholes and keep them dry.

Seam tape is a sticky waterproof tape that is applied to the seams of a tent. Typically, this tape is used at the factory and is firmly secured to the tent by a process of heat and pressure.

Seam tape can be found on the inside of tents, jackets, pants and other waterproof hiking gear. Just turn your tent or jacket over and look for a thin strip of clear tape along the seam and see if it's there!

Silicone seam sealant is a liquid silicone that you can purchase in various forms. It is used to seal seams, repair tears and other DIY processes.

If you've ever purchased a cottage industry tent, you may be faced with siliconing your own seams. This is a great process to master because it also comes in handy for repairing seam tape tents! The process is very simple.

 

 

Tent floor and footprint

Now that we've covered fabrics and waterproofing, there's just a little bit left to know about your tent.

A bathtub floor is a tent floor where the tent's thick, waterproof floor wraps around the tent's side walls. Typically, these side wraps stretch 2-6 inches along the sides of the tent, helping to prevent rain splash and any flowing groundwater during storms. Most tents use a design similar to this, even if they are not advertised as such.

Footprints are basically tarps on the ground under your tent. Usually, they are shaped to match the contours of the tent and should be made of a durable coarse denier fabric.

Footprints are most often used to protect the bottom of the tent from scratches, scrapes and punctures caused by sharp objects on the ground.

I don't usually use or recommend footprints for tents because careful siting helps reduce the risk of damage to the tent, for one thing, and they add weight to the pack.

In addition, many users fail to properly "hide" footprints under the tent. Any exposed footprint surface area outside the tent floor will act as an unintentional rainwater collector, essentially directing water under the tent. Not good!

Your next tent has a large selection of different fabrics to choose from. However, you will most likely be choosing between silnylon and silpoly simply because of their wide availability and affordable price. In this article, I've tried to cover the basics while helping you delve into the medium and advanced concepts of waterproof tents.

When you dive into the world of hiking, camping and backpacking, you end up learning something the hard way. There's no way around it - I think everyone I know owns at least 3-4 tents. However, knowing the details of waterproof tents means you'll be able to make more educated decisions and waste less money over time trying out new tents.

 

 Waterproof Tent Materials: Everything You Need to Know