For most campers, canvas tents aren’t something you see every day. In our technology-driven, modern-day world, many campers choose the convenience of nylon tents because they’re lighter and cheaper. But whether a canvas or a nylon tent is better depends on your camping needs.
In terms of basic quality, canvas tents are better, but they are not always conducive to some camping lifestyles. They have better water resistance and are more sustainable. Deciding whether to purchase a canvas or nylon tent depends on your needs, your budget, and your ethical values.
Camping covers a multitude of personalities, terrains, and activities, so there’s never a one-size-fits-all that works for every camper. But canvas certainly has an array of advantages that nylon does not. In the article below, we’ll compare canvas and nylon tents to help you decide which is best.
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What Are Canvas Tents?
Modern canvas tents are typically purchased in either 12-ounce or 14-ounce Grade A canvas. They have several advantages, including water resistance and natural temperature control. They are better insulated, highly breathable, and can be repaired easier than nylon. Most are even fire retardant.
The first commercialized canvas tent was patented in 1858, modeled after the traditional Native American tepee. At their outset, canvas tents were traditionally used as military quarters during times of war.
Canvas is a heavy-duty fabric commonly coveted for its water resistance. Originally made from hemp or linen, its modern form is predominantly made from natural cotton fibers tightly woven together. While tent-making in general dates to thousands of years, canvas first appeared on the scene around 600 AD in the form of sails for sea-going vessels.
About Canvas Tents
Because they are naturally better insulators when compared to nylon tents, they can keep you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Their natural materials also allow for better airflow, which keeps your tent from producing so much condensation.
They maximize comfort by filtering sunlight and retaining ambient temperatures, giving them a homey feel. Many of them maximize head space for easy standing. Just like nylon tents, canvas tents customarily have mesh windows and door panels for keeping bugs out and many, but not all, come with bathtub-style floors for a protective ground barrier.
On the downside, canvas tents require a significant amount of time, labor, and energy to set up and tear down due to their hefty weight. They are also difficult to clean, given the extended drying time that’s required. Canvas tents are also not freestanding, so they require a much larger footprint for setting up.
Are Canvas Tents Waterproof?
Canvas tents don’t come out of the box fully waterproof due to the stitching involved. However, once properly seasoned, they can fully seal themselves, making them one of the most waterproofed products on the planet, especially if your canvas tent is made using duck weave.
While you can use commercial sprays and sealers on your canvas tent, you don’t really need to. Just remember to allow your tent plenty of time to fully dry to avoid mold and mildew. If you go through the seasoning process correctly, you’ll never have to worry about waterproofing your canvass tent.
What Are Nylon Tents?
Nylon tents are tents made out of the synthetic fabric nylon. This is a ubiquitous material, used in a wide range of textiles and appliances. Nylon tents are very light and compact. They’re usually fairly easy to set up, and are generally cheaper than canvas tents.
Nylon was the first fabric to be entirely manufactured in a laboratory. A cheaper form of silk, nylon is a synthetic polymer that was invented back in 1927 by DuPont. Originally used in toothbrushes and pantyhose, its current uses are too numerous to count.
Using fossil fuels, synthetic thermoplastic polymers are melt-processed into lightweight fibers, which are then mixed with other additives to produce a variety of silk-like textiles, tents included. While nylon was invented in 1927, the first Nylon tent for recreational purposes wasn’t made until at least the 1960s, when recreational camping became popular.
Nylon was used by the military during World War II, when manufacturing was taken over by the War Production Board. At that time, nylon was predominantly used for making parachutes, ropes, clothing, tires, and even tents for military personnel.
About Nylon Tents
Fjallraven is credited with producing the first tent that utilized a canvas fly and a polyamideRipstop fabric inner tent. Nylon tents have the advantage of being lighter and more compact, which makes them the preferred choice for backpacking and short-term camping expeditions.
Nylon is much more flexible than canvas, and it has a good strength-to-weight ratio, meaning it’s tough given how light it is, but certainly not as tough as heavy-duty canvas. One of nylon’s biggest perks is that it’s abrasion-resistant.
Most nylon tents on the market today can be set up with relative ease and in good time, making them much more convenient than canvas tents. They’re also quick-drying, much easier to clean, and substantially more cost-effective. Many nylon tents are freestanding and therefore require much less room for pitching.
Are Nylon Tents Waterproof?
Nylon tents are never going to be fully waterproof, but they can be very water resistant. How waterproof your nylon tent is depends on its hydrostatic head (HH) rating. The higher the HH rating, the more water resistant your nylon tent is. You can also treat your nylon tent with waterproof spray.
Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents – Breathability & Ventilation
As mentioned earlier, cotton is much more breathable than nylon. So much so that it regulates humidity levels by keeping the humidity inside your tent equal to that outside your tent. This reduces the amount of condensation inside a canvas tent, allowing for a more pleasant environment.
Condensation forms when the warm, moist air inside your tent collides with the cool walls of your tent and transitions from vapor to water. There’s nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night to the drip, drip, drip of water droplets falling from the roof of your tent!
Because of their excellent breathability, canvas tents offer more airflow. This allows the would-be water droplets to pass right through your tent wall. This is, of course, assuming that your canvas tent has been properly seasoned and has adequate ventilation.
Not only is nylon markedly less breathable, but they are often sprayed with silicone, polymer-based waterproofing that seals off the fabric’s natural pores inhibiting its ventilation even more. Unless you take extra measures, there’s always the chance of condensation forming in a nylon tent.
In addition, avid campers usually seal their tents with a seam sealer, apply additional urethane coatings to prevent moisture, and add additional durable water repellent, further diminishing nylon’s already weakened breathability. Besides nylon’s natural structure, all these additional added synthetic materials make nylon tents characteristically hot when it’s hot, and cold when it’s cold.
Since it lacks breathability, it’s not uncommon for warm moist air to build up inside of a nylon tent, which not only makes the air in your tent feel damp, but also hot and stuffy in the summer and cold and clammy in the winter. Canvas, on the other, allows the moisture through.
Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents – Heat Efficiency
Canvas tents are also better insulated than nylon tents, making them more heat efficient. They are inherently made to retain temperature, so not only do they keep your tent warmer inside during the cold, but they also make your tent cooler during the heat, giving them natural climate control.
During colder weather, the warmth that builds up inside your tent stays trapped inside. This lessens the impact outside ambient temperatures have on the air inside your tent. Also, it takes a canvas tent considerably longer to heat up during the day when it’s hot outside.
Canvas tents also provide better protection against direct sunlight, so they can easily block out the bright morning sun. This is a very alluring factor for those that don’t like to get up at the crack of dawn. Your canvas tent will stay relatively darker for longer.
Canvas tents are also durable enough to place a woodburning stove on the inside, assuming it’s large enough, making them extremely heat efficient. There’s nothing better than having that intense warm heat on the inside of your shelter to keep you warm and cozy during those cold, winter months. Of course, you always need to be very careful with heat sources inside your tent.
Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents – Strength & Durability
Canvas also wins the contest when it comes to strength and durability. Nylon strength and durability are measured by deniers, which is the weight of a single strand. The average nylon tent is about 30 to 75 deniers (the thickness of the fiber). The smaller the number, the easier it is to tear and puncture.
Canvas is a naturally thicker textile when compared to flimsy nylon material, so it’s able to withstand higher levels of wear and tear, as well as harsher elements. Even ripstop fabric, which is specially woven to prevent rips and tears, cannot stand up to the durability of canvas.
In the rare circumstance that your canvas tent should tear, it’s also easier to repair than its nylon counterpart. They can be mended by sewing or patching, whereas nylon requires specialty repair patches. It’s often much cheaper to just replace a nylon tent rather than attempt to repair any extensive damages.
While both nylon and canvas are capable of degrading when left in the environment for a prolonged time, canvas tents are far superior to nylon tents in their ability to withstand harsh UV rays. Nylon is highly susceptible to ultraviolet rays, which significantly reduces its overall lifespan.
Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents – Sustainability
Environmental sustainability refers to contemplating and avoiding the depletion of natural resources, in addition to the ability to reproduce those same natural resources as necessary in the manufacturing of goods. For those interested in ethical consumerism, the question is which one is more sustainable: fossil fuels, environmental pollutants, global warming, or economic sustainability?
For those who want to cut down their dependence on fossil fuels, nylon tents are not your friend. Not only does nylon use petroleum in its manufacturing, but it also requires a great deal of water and energy, making them less “green” than their canvas counterparts. Nylon also doesn’t biodegrade quickly without the use of chemicals.
Nylon is a plastic derivative made from crude oil through a chemical reaction, known as condensation polymerization, that occurs between coal and petroleum under a heated, highly pressurized environment. This process creates a large nylon sheet.
These sheets are then broken down into smaller pieces, melted, and then forced through a thimble-like nozzle to produce filament in the form of long fibers, which are then woven into fabric. The production of nylon creates nitrous oxide, which is also deemed hazardous to the environment.
Canvas Isn’t Much More “Green”
Canvas, on the other hand, is made from naturally grown hemp or cotton. During the growing process, it’s not uncommon for crops to be sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, as well as defoliants, growth regulators, and desiccants, none of which are good for the environment.
Raw materials are then machine processed and fed through a hopper for advanced cleaning, which removes all the plant matter like stalks, stems, and leaves. Then the cotton is scoured with high, pressurized heat while adding sodium hydroxide, which is very corrosive and harmful to the body, but commonly used in all facets of manufacturing.
Once scoured, it’s then purified with a solution like hydrogen peroxide to make it chlorine-free. Finally, the material is rinsed clean and dried before being woven into canvas fabric. While both cotton and hemp are considered naturally biodegradable renewable resources, they go through a very intensive chemical processing counterproductive to sustainable farming.
In addition, cotton and hemp are plants, and therefore require approximately 440 pounds of fertilizer per hectare, which is also considered to negatively impact the environment. Moreover, considering today’s inflation and rising costs, particularly for fertilizer, then the price of canvas has become more expensive than it ever has been before.
In truth, sustainability comes down to which ring you want to throw your hat into, as neither nylon nor canvas are particularly attractive offers for the environmentally conscious. Sustainability comes down to your preference, your idea of convenience, and your budget.
Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents – Waterproofing
It’s inevitable that a brand-new canvas tent will leak. It must undergo a seasoning process to waterproof itself. Although canvas is innately water-resistant, the stitching creates countless pinholes at the seams, which will allow water to seep through.
You’ll need to season your canvas tent before taking it out on your next adventure. To do this, set your tent up and thoroughly soak it by spraying it down with a water hose. Spend a few hours letting it dry, and then repeat this same procedure two to three times over the course of the next several days.
This is usually a week-long process so make sure you have plenty of dry days in your forecast. As the canvas becomes saturated time and again, the fibers will expand sealing up all those pinholes. Once your tent is seasoned, it will offer substantial water resistance.
A word of caution, however, canvas tents require a good amount of time to completely dry. Packing them away too early can cause mold and mildew so be sure they are thoroughly dry before you do so. You don’t want your new canvas tent to smell musty or show mold.
Nylon is much thinner than canvas and as a result offers much less protection from the rain, but nylon isn’t nearly as heavy as canvas when it’s wet. Nylon tents are not naturally waterproof, so they are generally sprayed with a waterproof coating that keeps them from leaking, but this coating is not permanent and will need to be redone periodically.
Furthermore, many campers will add on a second layer of weatherproofing in addition to that of the manufacturer. Since nylon dries much faster, this also reduces the risk of mold and mildew. In addition, nylon is not biodegradable, so you don’t have to worry about rotting the same way you do with canvas.
Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents – Weight
One of the biggest disadvantages of canvas tents is their weight. While canvas is about as heavy-duty and outdoor-ready as they come, canvas is just outright cumbersome. Whether it’s plain weave or duck weave, it’s woven tight enough to make it waterproof, which packs on a lot of extra weight. Duck weave is even more density intensive, making it even heavier.
Canvas Tents Are Heavier
Canvas also typically gets a wax treatment that increases its water resistance and durability, making it nearly impenetrable, but this also adds an extra layer of weight. Not only is the tent itself heavy and bulky, but the pole system is also much heavier than the typical fiberglass or aluminum poles that come with nylon tents.
Because of the increased weight of canvas tents, many times hovering around a hundred pounds or more, the pole system must be strong enough to support the abundance of weight. Where nylon tents typically come with lightweight fiberglass or aluminum poles, canvas tents typically have heavy wood or even galvanized steel poles to support their increased weight.
Even a light, one-person canvas tent can weigh up to twenty pounds. So obviously not an ideal choice for backpackers or thru-hikers that are constantly on the move as the extra load just isn’t conducive. Carry a canvas tent over miles of trail will tire you out to where you don’t even want to set up the tent to sleep.
Nylon Is Less Of A Hassle
Sometimes, the hassle of a canvas tent becomes more trouble than it’s worth. Because they are not free-standing, and they require a larger amount of time and energy when compared to your quick, pop-up, nylon version, canvas tents are often just too inconvenient for a good portion of campers.
Canvas tents are really only useful for car campers, base camps for large groups, and those that are into glamping. Canvas tents are also more often used in the commercial industries of outdoor markets and festivals because of their durability and waterproofing.
Nylon tents are, by far, the preferred choice for solo camping or backpacking adventures, even though they are made from fossil fuels. They are lightweight and can be stuffed into small bundles. Weighing as little as a couple of pounds, they’re the versatile choice for anyone on the move, yet they’re still strong enough to protect you from the harsh elements.
Because they are generally so light, it’s easy to set up even large nylon tents with just one person. Some of the larger canvas tents can require a whole squad of people. Nylon tent poles are lighter, too, usually made from aluminum or fiberglass, so that cuts down on the weight as well.
Canvas Tents vs Nylon Tents – Pricing
The other major disadvantage of canvas tents is their price. While many nylon tents can be purchased for well under $200, some of the cheapest canvas tents are considerably pricier, at around $500 and beyond, and sometimes upwards of a few thousand dollars.
One reason for the high price is the high manufacturing costs. From cotton seed to canvas tent is a highly labor-intensive process and requires a substantial amount of costs. India is the top producer of raw cotton and China is the leading canvas manufacturer, so there is an extensive amount of shipping involved. Canvas, being a naturally heavy product, incurs higher shipping costs.
Another reason canvas tents can be so expensive is they are often custom-made. This also requires a great deal of time and energy, which equates to more money. However, it falls under the adage of you get what you pay for. The durability of the canvas tent is what makes it a worth wild investment. A good canvas tent can last a few decades, whereas a nylon tent may only last a few years.
Nylon Is Cheaper
Nylon is a cheaper product in general because it’s simply a byproduct of crude oil. The overall process doesn’t require the labor-intensive seed to factory model, and therefore costs much less to fabricate. Also, the manufacturing process is so much easier.
Nylon can be produced in high volume through simple chemical reactions, which require very little labor and energy when compared to canvas. Furthermore, it’s lighter and therefore requires less money to transport. Also, nylon tents in many cases are not always fully waterproofed, further reducing the overall costs.
Even though canvas is more waterproof and a little more environmentally friendly, many campers choose nylon tents for their light weight, cheaper pricing, and the ease of setup. Canvas is made from natural cotton or hemp fibers, whereas nylon is a synthetic product manufactured with oil.