When I started back into backpacking and assembling lighter gear, I never thought about tent fabrics, and I found what was the best option at the price I was willing to pay.
Then I started seeing this amazing tent on YouTube called the Duplex and read about DCF.
I wanted to know why people were infatuated with it in the thru-hiking world, so what is a DCF tent, and why is DCF material so expensive?
A DCF tent is built using Dyneema Composite Fabrics, a specialty material that requires specialty machinery to assemble, making it very expensive and not widely used by larger companies but more by cottage companies.
A DCF tent, on average, will cost 2-3 times a sil-nylon tent of a similar configuration. But a DCF tent can easily be almost half the weight or sometimes less; the savings in weight is what pulls in thru-hikers purchases.
This leads me to my journey as I bought a Durston X-Mid 1P two years ago, and I have loved it to death, but one-person tents can be squished for longer duration hikes and if you need to sit out weather.
I recently got the amazing Durston X-Mid Pro 2, which is the same frame as the 1P I love but uses Dyneema for the tent outer in place of the sil-poly fabric on the original, making it a near-perfect blend to have an ultralight tent.
For me, it is fast to set up and ultra-light to carry for 1000s of miles. Let’s dig into the benefits and drawbacks to DCF, as it may be a good decision for you to make when gearing up for a thru-hike.
The Science Behind DCF: What Makes it Different
Dyneema fiber, previously called cuben fiber, was built originally for sailboat sails, as it is incredibly strong for its weight and, along with its waterproofness, makes it ideal for constructing a durable and lightweight tent.
Though with all the benefits, there are still issues that cause it to be less used as a shelter material for many manufacturers. It is costly to purchase, machine, and nearly impossible to dye, so you also have very limited colorways.
Why Don’t All Gear Companies Switch to DCF?
Much of this has to do with exceptional costs, being both labor-intensive and difficult to acquire and to create, let alone sell. DCF requires very specific needs in equipment to sew it, and this gear isn’t the same as traditional equipment.
This keeps the number of companies that can produce DCF products limited to those with a lot of financial backing and those willing to create and possibly suffer losses from failed sales runs.
This has been slowly changing as more and more companies can acquire the right equipment, but it is still a significant investment.
The end product is also much more expensive than what you find, limiting the audience who can and will buy, leading many bigger brands to avoid it entirely.
The Limited Color Palette of DCF Shelters
Most colors are limited to very light colors; the most common are translucent white, blue, and light green.
There is also black, but this makes for a poor shelter color as it warms the interior from the sun’s heat, making it unbearable in hot weather.
Evaluating the Durability of DCF in the Field
Dyneema is a tough fabric, but it is not indestructible. The material’s weave can catch on and tear; however, it will not run like traditional nylon fabrics.
You need to be most careful with the seams as they are sewn and not glued, making for a less resistant connection point.
Take care when setting up and taking down your shelter not to catch anything on the corners.
I could not pull apart the bonded seam but I could pull apart every stitched seam that I made. The bonded seam performed as if there were no seam at all, and it was just like trying to pull apart a continuous piece of 2″ wide DCF which I cannot do.
Clearly the stitches damaged the material enough to create weak points that grow under stress and fail with less force.Backpacking Light
One of the great things about DCF is that it can be repaired in the field with needle and thread quite easily as long as you have a little patience.
I have had to do this a few times already, and it has been relatively painless.
Benefits and Drawbacks of a DCF Tent
There are definite pros and cons between a DCF tent and other more traditional materials like sil-nylon.
First, let’s look at the Pros:
What Advantages Does DCF Provide?
There are loads of beneficial parts to DCF as a shelter material that can make the exorbitant cost well worth the investment.
The biggest are weight reduction, waterproof, not stretchable, and strong tear resistance; let’s dig in.
Large Weight Reduction
The primary advantage of DCF is how incredibly lightweight it is for what it can do. You will often see a sil-nylon tent that weighs around 3 lbs and then a comparable DCF one at 1.
This is due to most single-wall tents are the gold standard for lightweight shelters on the trail.
Throughout 2000+ miles, this is significant to your bodily health, including your knees and feet. This weight savings also allows you to use a lighter and smaller backpack as you aren’t hauling as much weight around.
One of the main reasons that DCF was created in the first place was for sails on boats; it needs to be incredibly waterproof while being lightweight, which made it perfect for extending use into hiking.
This excellent waterproofing extends to DCF tents and excels in heavy rain. At the same time, you may think that since the fabric is waterproof, this alone would keep you bone-dry, but since you need to attach doors and parts to the tent, you create micro holes to attach with a sewing machine.
This means tents have extra work added to either tape these seams in creation, hot bond the DCR layers together, or seam seal with a sealant to help protect you fully in the heaviest of downpours.
As DCF is not stretchy, it will hold its shape in all conditions, so you won’t have to worry about your tarp or bathtub floor sagging in the rain as waterlogged sil-nylon can.
This also keeps the tent more stable in high winds as it can’t flap as much due to the lack of giving.
Massive Tear Resistance
One of the lesser-known advantages of DCF is its incredible tear resistance for how light it is. This is due to the extremely tough fibers used in its construction and is a result of it being designed for sails.
You will often see people use this as their only shelter material on long-distance hikes as it can take a beating day in and day out and still perform admirably.
The Drawbacks to Consider with DCF
There are some drawbacks to DCF as your go-to material, but most are avoidable with a little extra care.
The main issues are its sheer cost, the fact the material is very translucent, providing limited privacy, and that the DCF can make loads of noise when it’s windy.
Extremely Expensive & Cost Prohibitive
Any tent body built with Dyneema will not be light on the wallet. For most DCF shelters, you will have to look at paying a minimum of around $600 for the shelter alone without tent stakes.
This is a lot of money for most people and often puts the DCF option out of reach. If you have the budget, it’s well worth the investment as you will save so much on weight while not losing any strength or durability.
Near Translucent & Limited Privacy
As I mentioned above, since DCF is so light, it is also very translucent. This doesn’t mean you can see through it like a window, but in the right lighting or with a headlamp inside, you can easily make out the shape of a person.
This provides little privacy and can often be a deal-breaker for some people, especially if you are hiking with or around others, especially strangers.
For many, this limits its use as they don’t want to be on display, and it is often one of the main reasons people shy away from DCF shelters outside of the cost itself.
Noisy Enough To Interrupt Sleep
Another drawback that can often discourage people is how incredibly loud DCF can be in high winds. When the wind is whipping around your shelter, it can make a loud crinkling sound that can be enough to disrupt sleep.
To help combat this, some companies have started using a thicker DCF that helps to deaden the noise somewhat, but it’s still an issue for those particularly sensitive to noise when trying to sleep.
Frequently Require Trekking Poles
For most DCF shelters, you will need to use trekking poles, as this LT5 set from Gossamer Gear, the lightest weight poles on the market today, to set them up, not tent poles.
They are called “trekking pole tents” due to the use of your hiking poles as the primary support of your shelter at night.
This is largely due to being the choice for people looking to be ultralight in weight and not carrying a lot of extra gear.
While this isn’t an issue for some, others may not carry poles or want to use their trekking poles for a chair or other needs, limiting the usefulness of DCF shelters in those situations.
How Long Will A DCF Tent Last?
The lifespan of any tent depends on how you care for it and how often you use and abuse it, and a thru-hike is pretty brutal on gear due to the length of time you use it.
For most normal people, a DCF tent will last them many years if they take care of it, with some companies even offering a lifetime warranty on the material itself.
In terms of a thru-hike, the normal life expectancy would be a single thru-hike. Many people, though, have had their same tent through multiple thru-hikes. Just note the way you treat this material matters.
So the real story is your mileage may vary. You might get years out of a DCF tent or just one thru-hike, but what matters is you take care of your gear and know its limitations.
So Then, Is a DCF Tent Worth the Heavy Investment?
When you are on a thru-hike, you are on the trail, and your shelter is your “home,” Most homes will cost you much more than $600-700 dollars and be nowhere near as transportable.
To me, this makes them very much worth the investment.
Having a safe place to sleep that is comfortable, dry, and bug-free makes all the difference in the world when you are out there for months.
Due to its durability, the DCF option will cost you less in the long run. So while the upfront cost may be high, the long-term savings make this a great investment for those who can afford it and treat their tent with care.
Ultimately, what matters is what works best for you and what you are willing to spend to make your hike more comfortable.
For many people, the increased cost will outweigh any benefits, but for others, it may be worth it.
Top DCF Tents Field-Tested by Thru-Hikers
The major players for thru-hiking will be Zpacks, Big Agnes, HMG, and Tarptent.
There are newer shelter options on the market, like the X-Mid 2 Pro that I purchased, which has all the hallmarks of a brilliant option but is less long-term tested though thru-hikers coming back loving the poly versions!
Zpacks Plex Solo Tent (1 Person Tent) – 13.9 ounces
The Plex Solo is a sub-14oz ultralight tent designed for adventurers who want to save weight without sacrificing performance or comfort.
This spacious one-person tent is perfect for thru-hiking, bikepacking, and packrafting and allows you to push your limits and explore new boundaries.
Zpacks Duplex (2 Person Tent) – 18.5 ounces
The Duplex is a lightweight and roomy two-person tent. It is well-ventilated and can be set up in the tightest of spaces. You won’t find a lighter functional two-person tent on the market.
This tent also makes it onto my best trekking pole tents list.
Durston X-Mid 2P Pro – 20 ounces
New to the market, this tent uses hot-bonded DCF to give the best performance possible. Instead of using DCF for the floor material, it opts for silpoly still, making it better and more compressible than the Zpacks and other tents that use thicker DCF for the flooring.
The dual peak vents and vast vestibule space make the X-Mid tents a perfect option for thru-hikers because it was built by a thru-hiker who understands the depths of tent materials.
The biggest issue with the X-Mid 2P Pro is that it is hard to get materials, so it is frequently back-ordered, and the most recent sale ended around an hour before they were all sold out!
HMG Mid 1 – 16.8 oz
For those looking for an ultralight DCF shelter, the HMG Mid 1, with steep walls matched with equally strong materials is a near-perfect option for a thru-hiker who requires the ultimate ultralight tent.
Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Carbon – 22 oz
The Big Agnes Tiger Wall 2 Carbon tent is perfect for people who want something lightweight and easy to pack. This tent is made with waterproof and tear-resistant Dyneema fabric. It also has Easton carbon poles, which makes it even easier to carry around.
This is designed for people who want the lightest weight and most technologically advanced tent available; this is also available on Amazon here.
DCF for the DIY Backpacker
The best option, if you want to give this a try, would be to go to RipStopByTheRoll. They are THE place to find everything you need to make nearly any outdoor gear on your own, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.
You will have to buy the material, cut it to shape, seal it, and construct the entire shelter yourself. It’s a lot of work but can be very rewarding, especially when you finish your first project.
If you don’t feel like making your gear, don’t worry; plenty of companies produce high-quality DCF gear for you to choose from.
Final Thoughts on DCF Tents
DCF has some incredible advantages that make it one of the best materials on the market for ultralight backpacking, and trekking pole-supported tents.
If you can look past the cost, weight, and noise issues, there is no better material regarding strength-to-weight ratio, waterproofing, or tear resistance.
I’ve just got my first DCF shelter, the X-Mid Pro 2, and I look forward to taking it on some fantastic trips. I hope to report its durability, easy setup, and packability soon.
If you have the budget and are looking for an ultralight trekking pole shelter, I highly recommend checking out a Zpacks Duplex or Gossamer Gear The Two tent for your next purchase, as they are tried and true trekking pole tents for years on the longest trails.
Do you have experience with Dyneema Composite Fabrics? What are your thoughts? Let me know in the comments below!