A backpack is one of the most crucial elements of a hiker’s kit. You want a backpack that’s comfortable, durable, water resistant, and lightweight, yet has the capacity to pack all the essentials for a successful hike. That means it’s good to know the best material hiking backpacks can be made from.
Nylon is viewed as the best material for a hiking backpack, although polyester has many similar qualities. Nylon is more durable, softer, and has a greater strength-to-weight ratio than polyester. Nylon will also stretch to accommodate a full backpack load and regain its shape when empty.
Synthetic materials like nylon and polyester are the most common materials used for hiking backpacks. In the article below, we will look at both materials and assess which is the best for a hiking backpack. We will also assess which backpack material is the most durable and waterproof.
What Are Hiking Backpacks Normally Made Of?
Typically, hiking backpacks are made from nylon or polyester. These are both synthetic, plastic polymers that are derived from petroleum. Natural materials like cotton have been replaced by nylon and polyester as the predominant material used to make hiking rucksacks.
Nylon was the first of these synthetic fibers, and when it was introduced to the world in the 1930s it made a dramatic impact on the use of materials across many different industries. Polyester was not far behind, and the appeal of both synthetic fibers was that they were more durable but lighter than the natural materials they began to replace.
Both nylon and polyester fibers can be woven to make materials of different thickness levels or interwoven with other materials to add additional qualities. One of the main markers of material is its “denier,” which is its thickness and weight. The higher the denier, the thicker and more durable the material. A higher denier also results in a higher weight.
Other Backpack Materials
While nylon and polyester are the most common materials used in hiking backpacks, there are other materials that backpacks and their component parts can be made from. These include:
- Polypropylene – a widely used plastic that has waterproof qualities and is quick to dry. It’s less used for hiking as it starts to break down and fade under prolonged exposure to the sun.
- Cotton canvas – originally the main material backpacks were made of because it’s durable, waterproof and sturdy. However, it’s heavier than its synthetic counterparts and can begin to rot if not dried properly before being stored away.
- Cordura – more of a brand than a material, Cordura uses nylon or a blend of nylons to create a very strong and durable material, ideal for hiking backpacks. It’s a durable, waterproof, and abrasion-resistant product.
- Ballistic nylon – thick and durable nylon originally used as a protective material. Resistant to tearing but can be heavy.
- Dyneema – A very strong and lightweight synthetic material favored by the military for its low-weight, high-strength properties.
Nylon vs Polyester Hiking Backpacks
Nylon and polyester revolutionized fabrics, introducing synthetic alternatives to natural materials. Hiking backpacks were one of those products where synthetic materials were seized upon to create products to rival and surpass in popularity backpacks previously made from cotton or even leather.
While nylon and polyester share some common traits, such as being stronger and lighter than traditional natural fabrics (both elements that made them attractive to backpack manufacturers) they have several differences too. The following are five key factors for a hiking backpack when comparing nylon and polyester.
While nylon is a more durable material than polyester, the fact is they are both very durable when it comes to fabrics for hiking backpacks. However, nylon tends to be the stronger material of the two, due to it having a higher strength-to-weight ratio than polyester.
Both materials are abrasion resistant, although polyester is slightly better. You tend to see less pilling on polyester, and any pilling on nylon can cause the fabric to fray. Although this might not affect the overall effectiveness of the backpack, it means the polyester backpack can look newer for longer. Polyester also fades less when faced with prolonged exposure to sunlight.
Neither nylon nor polyester are waterproof, but they are both water resistant. Nylon is a low absorber of water and can soak through if exposed to a period of wet conditions. However, manufacturers can use tighter weaves and coat the nylon in substances like polyurethane to make nylon more waterproof.
Polyester repels rather than absorbs water, which makes droplets bead on the material before running off. For this reason, a polyester backpack doesn’t tend to get heavier when it’s raining. Polyester also doesn’t stretch when wet, whereas nylon does, another reason why nylon backpacks are usually coated with a water repellent.
Nylon is a softer material than polyester and provides a more comfortable backpack fabric, although polyester has improved hugely over the years and manufacturers can now make finer threads with the fabric. Therefore, there is not much difference in comfort levels between the two materials in normal climes.
However, nylon is a warmer fabric, which can be great when hiking in cooler conditions, but could make you sweat more in warmer or more humid conditions. Both materials have good wicking properties if you tend to sweat when hiking.
Nylon possesses a small degree of elasticity and can stretch, whereas polyester has no elasticity at all. However, the level of elasticity in nylon is not enough to make it too much different in this respect to polyester. It just means there is a little extra give in the material when you’re trying to cram as much as you can into the backpack.
The other time elasticity may come into play is when a nylon backpack is wet, which can cause the fabric to stretch. However, as already discussed, coated nylon increases water resistance and reduces this as an issue unless you find yourself in constant rain for a long time.
You may pay more for a nylon backpack than you would for a polyester one. Nylon is a stronger, more robust material that’s more expensive to produce, and this extra cost is reflected in the price of the backpack. Budget is an important part of a purchase for most people, and value is key in getting the most suitable product with the features you require at the best price.
What Is The Best Material For A Hiking Backpack And Why?
Nylon is considered by many as the best material for a hiking backpack. Nylon is a durable and strong material, yet soft enough to provide more comfort than comparable synthetic materials. Nylon also has a higher strength-to-weight ratio compared to polyester.
Minimizing the weight you carry when you hike is important, so the strength-to-weight ratio is a key factor in why nylon is preferred over other materials like polyester. You will normally have to pay more for a nylon backpack, but this can often prove worth the additional expense for the quality of the bag and to help you hike with less weight on your back.
The pros of nylon as the material for a hiking backpack include:
- Sturdy and durable
- Softer and more lightweight material for better comfort
- Offers elasticity so you can pack a full backpack without it breaking apart
- The elasticity lets the backpack return to its shape after being stretched
- Smoother and softer to the touch
- Easy to clean and wash
- Resistant to mold and mildew
- Impermeable with low water absorbency rate
Of course, the quality of hiking backpacks can vary between manufacturers who may use different design and production techniques. However, the advantages of nylon for backpacks make it the best choice of material for many people and an improvement on natural materials such as cotton.
Are There Any Downsides To Nylon?
Nylon has a few flaws as a backpack material. Hiking is a demanding pastime, with different conditions and different climates placing a wide variety of demands on hiking equipment, including backpacks.
The cons of using nylon for a hiking backpack include:
- Retains heat, which can make you sweat more in warmer conditions. The flip side of this is it can be beneficial when hiking in the winter.
- Can tear or rip easily once the material is punctured.
- Absorbs water. While nylon can be quick to dry, it can also soak through in prolonged wet conditions.
- As with most synthetic materials, not necessarily eco-friendly, although nylon tends to be made from by-products that otherwise would be thrown out.
- Can be damaged by bleach, so any cleaning materials used to wash a nylon hiking backpack should be free of any bleaching substances.
However, it should be noted that for some of the disadvantages of using nylon, there are some quick and often ready-made solutions. For example, many nylon backpack manufacturers will coat their products to increase water resistance and reduce the issue of water absorption. Although never fully waterproof, such coating helps prevent the backpack from completely soaking through.
Ripstop nylon is used to prevent nylon from tearing when punctured, one of the softer material’s main drawbacks. Ripstop nylon involves thicker threads that are woven into the nylon to produce a more tightly knit pattern. Besides helping to prevent nylon backpacks from ripping when punctured, it also enhances the waterproofing properties.
However, over time the thicker woven fabric of ripstop nylon will hold up to everyday abrasion better than the softer surrounding nylon. This can make holes eventually form along the seams where the ripstop nylon is woven in among the standard nylon material.
Best Waterproof Material For Hiking Backpacks
The best waterproof material for hiking backpacks is arguably polyester. It’s hydrophobic, which means water is repelled rather than absorbed into the surface of the material. This is a primary reason polyester is viewed as the better waterproof material.
However, like nylon, polyester is water resistant rather than waterproof. But since it doesn’t absorb water, it won’t become heavier or stretch when it’s wet.
Even though water initially beads on a polyester backpack, water will start to seep through the threads when exposed to a more prolonged spell of wet conditions. Polyester with a denser thread count will be able to repel water for longer, although hikers may want to consider the balance between additional water resistance and additional weight from a denser weave.
Since polyester absorbs less water, a hiking backpack made from polyester will dry quicker than one made from nylon. To make a waterproof backpack, regardless of whether it’s made from nylon or polyester, it will need to be coated in a substance like polyurethane or silicone.
Sometimes, the lining of a backpack can be a weak point even after applying a waterproofing solution to the outer material. This is where ripstop nylon can be highly beneficial. The thicker thread of ripstop nylon is strong but lightweight, and when interwoven for lining, it can offer strength and extra waterproofing properties.
A bonus of ripstop nylon is that it’s lightweight so you gain extra water resistance while adding very little additional weight to the backpack. This abrasion-resistant weave offers good versatility when it comes to materials for hiking backpacks.
Most Durable Material For Hiking Backpacks
Nylon is the most durable material for hiking backpacks. Nylon is an exceptionally strong material, with a higher strength-to-weight ratio than polyester. Therefore, a nylon hiking backpack can be stronger than a polyester backpack without weighing more.
However, nylon covers a whole range of synthetic fibers and there are two “nylons” that are recognized as extra durable and likely the most durable materials for hiking backpacks. These different nylons are call ballistic nylon and cordura and they both make fine backpacks.
As the name may suggest, ballistic nylon has a history connected to the military. The weave used produces a thick and durable nylon, one that has seen it increasingly used in more commercial products, including backpacks. Ballistic nylon is rigid and resistant to wear, making it a more durable nylon material.
Ballistic nylon also has good resistance to tearing, another feature that makes it one of the most durable materials for a hiking backpack. This superior tensile strength makes ballistic nylon heavier than most other nylons, but for serious hikers, the additional durability could more than compensate.
One thing to note is backpacks made with ballistic nylon will tend to be black in color because it’s resistant to dye. Therefore, if you prefer more colorful backpacks, ballistic nylon may not be for you. But if you are looking for the most durable material for a hiking backpack, you may not need to look much further.
Cordura is another combination of synthetic fibers, with traits like ripstop nylon. Cordura is known as a high quality, strong, and very durable material. It’s another material with military origins, but it’s gained increasing use in high-end commercial items, including backpacks.
In terms of durability, there is little difference between Cordura and ballistic nylon. While no doubt some people will feel one is marginally more durable than the other, they are both up there as the most durable materials around for hiking backpacks.
However, whereas ballistic nylon is a little more tear resistant, Cordura is viewed as marginally more abrasion resistant. Cordura is also more laid back in appearance, offering a canvas-type look and feel as opposed to the glossy, shiny appearance of a backpack made using ballistic nylon.
Nylon and polyester have many similarities that make them good materials for hiking backpacks. However, the extra durability, strength, and comfort of nylon is why this material is often viewed as best for hiking backpacks. Nylon has many variations that can make your hiking backpack more durable.