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Tent walls, ceilings and floors are constructed from a variety of fabrics, such as nylon, polyester, laminates and canvas. Canvas is a heavy, plain-woven fabric typically made from cotton, hemp or a blend. Nylon fabric is a lightweight, silky material made from nylon fibers, a synthetic polymer. Canvas and nylon each offer different benefits. Which type is best depends on how you plan to use your tent.
Canvas and nylon are both strong, durable fabrics. Canvas is more durable than nylon. Canvas can be easily mended with a sewing kit, while nylon requires a special repair patch. The heavy thread in canvas resists letting rips grow larger. While regular nylon fabric rips easily, ripstop nylon uses a special weave to stop rips from growing. Canvas may rot if not cared for properly.
Cotton breathes much better than nylon, keeping the interior humidity level with the outside. Nylon tents may allow condensation to form on the walls and depend on mesh panels to provide ventilation. Canvas does not transfer heat as quickly as nylon, keeping the tent interior cooler in warm weather, and warmer when it is cool outside. A nylon tent can become unbearably hot very quickly in direct sunlight.
Nylon is naturally water resistant and is often coated to make it waterproof. Nylon fibers do not rot, so storing a wet nylon tent will not damage it. However, nylon tents should be thoroughly dried before storing because mildew can still form on the surface. Cotton fibers are very absorbent and susceptible to rot. Water absorbed by the canvas can make it very heavy. Canvas may be coated to improve its water resistance.
Nylon fabric is a light and airy material originally designed to replace natural silk. Canvas is woven from thick fibers to give it strength and durability, making canvas much heavier than nylon. In wet conditions, canvas absorbs water, making it even heavier. The pole structure used for canvas tents is heavier and more bulky than the lightweight poles used in nylon tents.
Cotton and hemp are natural, renewable materials that are biodegradable, and thus ultimately better for the environment. Nylon is typically a synthetic, nonbiodegradable material manufactured from nonrenewable petroleum products. Most canvas tents use a rigid-pole structure, which is heavier and more difficult to setup than the flexible-pole dome structures used by most nylon tents. Nylon tents pack into a smaller space, and many can be stuffed into a compression sack to make a compact bundle.
Nylon tents are lighter, pack smaller and are easier to set up. If you plan to carry your tent backpacking, skiing, bicycling or in a small vehicle, a nylon or polyester tent is the best choice. If weight, space,and assembly time are not an issue, consider buying a canvas tent for the added comfort, durability and environmental friendliness.
Deborah Lee Soltesz is a web developer who has been creating websites, promotional materials and information products since 1992. Soltesz has a Bachelor of Science in computer science and engineering. She worked in earth and space science research writing for scientific and general audiences for more than a decade.