There are many materials that can be used to make a tent. In this blog post, we will discuss three of the most popular materials: Silpoly, Silnylon, and DCF.
Each material has its own unique set of pros and cons, so it is crucial to understand what each one offers before making a decision about what type of tent to buy let’s look at what materials are used to make a tent for thru-hiking.
Thru-hiking tents are made mainly from three primary materials: SilNylon, SilPoly, and DCF or Dyneema Composite Fabrics. These all have a range of benefits and drawbacks that can make them a perfect choice for a thru-hiker, benefits range from durability, cost, weight, and much more.
Let’s take a look at the most common fabrics used for a tent in the land of long-distance hiking, and then we can dig into why each is good and bad, along with how they stack up against each other.
Digging Into Fabric and the Frequent Terminology
There are a few standard terms you will see all over the place on tents. Understanding what each of these means can help you choose the suitable fabric for your needs, or better yet knowing which will not fit your needs.
Understanding Fabric Denier
The first thing that a potential buyer should understand about the fabrics themselves, the term “fabric denier” is a comparative rating of how thick fabric is versus a single strand of silk.
Silk is one denier and weighs one gram for every 9000 meters of thread(source).
This has morphed more over time to be used also for the thickness of a fabric, so the higher the number, the thicker and typically perceived durability and strength of the fabric is, so 30 denier is heavier and stronger than 20 denier.
I lower denier doesn’t always mean a gigantic weight-saving either. Most fabrics will be lighter but the weight difference may not amount to as much as many may believe.
Choosing the fabric is best led by its use typically on a tent, the thickest denier fabric will be used on the floor as it will be in contact with rough surfaces when no tent footprint is used.
Understanding Thread Count
The sum of the vertical and horizontal threads (or yarns) per square inch of cloth is referred to as “thread count”.
Most tent manufacturers are going to work hard to align the denier, thread count, alongside performance into their gear builds.
Thread count is like your bedsheets, the number of threads per inch of fabric. So a 310T tent fabric would contain 310 threads per inch of usable fabric, the higher this number the more threads within that inch exists.
This thread count should, like the denier above, change based on the spot it will be used, typically a higher thread count would be used on a floor for more tear-proof use versus the rainfly.
Waterproof Vs Breathability
The next thing that many companies showcase and people speak about is how the fabric actually works, in the most unicorn tent ever you would have the ultimate overall breathability of the fabric along with a total waterproof exterior.
In truth, both of these work in direct opposition to each other, making fabric waterproof, where water can’t make it through the fabric, and breathable, where air and moisture can pass both directions with ease.
As you can more than likely read above, you are looking for something that lives between both of these and leans in the direction you prefer most.
For some, this will be less condensation by having more breathable fabrics, for others the sheer waterproof trumps the issues it brings.
This is why there is so much variation in tent fabrics, each fabric covers some of this in one way or another, making them each an amazing choice based on the needs of the hike and the hiker.
What has been done for thru-hikers and tents, in general, is to focus on managing breathability and waterproofness through single-wall and double-wall tent designs.
Though frequently, the double-wall tent has much better default ventilation and a waterproof layer while single-wall tents require learning how to pitch them for maximum airflow while protecting from heavy rain.
If you are looking to compare tents head to head check out my Backpacking Tent Comparison Table and find the perfect match to your needs!
Thru-Hiker Most Common Tent Materials
There are loads of fabrics and waterproofing agents that can be used to make the best options for a long and durable trail life. The focus today will be on the 3 major uses of a thru-hikers tent starting with the most common, SilNylon, then moving on to why a SilPoly may suit your needs more.
The final is DCF, which is the top option for waterproof tents as the material was first used for sailboat sails. The biggest name in DCF tents is the Duplex from Zpacks, but there are other manufacturers nipping at the heel to begin making better quality tents from this material!
SilNylon Tent Material
Maybe the most well-known and most utilized lighter fabric for thru-hiking tents across the board, SilNylon is a coated nylon fabric that falls in the lightweight category for tents.
Benefits to SilNylon Tents
There are some solid reasons to choose SilNylon for a thru-hiking tent, these reasons include some of the below:
Overall Light Weight
SilNylon is a very good solid performance fabric for the weight, this is what makes it so popular as a tent material. SilNylon has been used on tents, tarps, and gear for years, and continues to be a top choice for thru-hikers.
Overall the material is very strong and has a solid ability to be able to handle what the trail throws at it. This means that overall you can have an incredibly durable tent in a lightweight package.
The fabric is less expensive to produce than some of the other materials on this list and is readily available, making it a good choice for balancing the cost of a tent versus the quality you need to last months.
The coating provides a good level of consistent waterproofing, which is why it has been a popular option for coating tents over the years.
As with most tent fabrics, SilNylon is very windproof as it has a good tight weave with high density.
Handles Daily Use
One of the most important factors to a thru-hiker is how a tent holds up over 4-6 months of consistent use. SilNylon has been used because it’s been torture tested and has shown the ability to survive constant use.
Drawbacks to SilNylon Tents
There are some issues with SilNylon tents that thru-hikers should be aware of before taking the plunge; these drawbacks can include:
Tension Under Moisture
SilNylon fabric loses its tension the wetter it gets and under sustained water contact, it will require re-tensioning of the fabric begins to sag and may reach contact with you or the inner mesh.
Susceptible to UV Damage
A SilNylon tent is highly susceptible to UV damage, which can lead to the fabric “fading” over time and eventual degradation.
While this may need months of sun exposure a thru-hiker is a perfect example of how you can age a tent over a shorter period of years due to this more consistent use.
Since they have a coating to make them waterproof, this also limits the moisture from leaving the tent leading to condensation on the walls of the tent, so if condensation is a worry for you look for a double-wall tent.
Most SilNylon won’t hold lots of heat inside. While it isn’t fully breathable it does typically let heat escape through the same condensation process which will help outside air temp seep in outside.
To manage this you typically want to pitch as low as possible with a trekking pole tent to limit ground air entry via the ground.
SilPoly Tent Material
This is very similar to SilNylon but the polyester coating on the fabric gives it a different feel as well as increased durability.
Benefits of SilPoly Tents
There are some quality reasons why you should have a tent made from SilPoly which include some of the below:
An immense benefit to poly as a fabric is the lower price tag that comes with the material and typically following this the tent costs overall.
No Loss In Tension
Unlike SilNylon, a polyester tent doesn’t have the tension issues and sagging that a nylon-based fabric does, so you can set it up once and not worry about it.
Better UV Resistance
The polyester offers better UV resistance than SilNylon, which is a big plus if you plan on leaving your tent out in the sun for extended periods.
Greater Water Resistance
The polyester coating provides a little more water resistance than Sil-Nylon does, which makes it take longer for the fabric to become wet through and seep moisture inside.
Drawbacks to SilPoly Tents
No tent material is perfect, and this includes Sil-Poly tents. Some things you should be aware of include:
Limited Material Choices
There are very few blends available for poly, which means there is much less variation in tents built with the fabric.
Seams Need to be Sealed
This generally impacts all fabrics, and the Sil-Poly tent is no exception to this need. However, from my understanding, it is possible to have them taped in the manufacturing and not need manual seam sealer done.
One of the main drawbacks to SilPoly tents is that they tend to suffer from more condensation than either SilNylon or DCF tents. This is because the coating on the fabric traps humidity, which causes water droplets to form inside the tent.
DCF Tent Material
Dyneema is not incredibly new, but it is the newest overall fabric. DCF is terrific and was created for a different purpose, but manufacturers found it was very lightweight, near ultralight on its while also being near waterproof.
Benefits of DCF Tents
The crown jewel for many thru-hikers is a tent made from DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric) due to its many benefits, which include:
DCF is an extremely lightweight fabric, making tents made from it some of the lightest on the market. This makes them perfect for thru-hikers looking to save every possible ounce.
DCF is waterproof, so your tent will be protected from rain and snow. This makes it an excellent choice for hikers worried about inclement weather.
DCF is also very durable, meaning your tent will withstand wear and tear much better than tents made from other materials.
Drawbacks to DCF Tents
There are some drawbacks that you should be aware of before buying a DCF tent, such as:
DCF tents are typically more expensive than other types of tents. This is because they are made from high-quality material in limited supply with specialized equipment needed to even create a tent with it.
To be fully honest here, they are noisy, like can’t sleep at night when it is super windy and noisy. For some, this won’t be an issue, for those who can sleep through hurricanes, but something like this can be a significant negative to any purchase.
Any DCF tent will be much bulkier than either other type of fabric, and this is due to the need to fold and the inability to stuff as you can develop pin-hole problems over time with folds overlaying each other.
One of the things I was not aware of before was shedding on DCF, but per a discussion on Reddit, many came to state that it is not as good a material for snow versus the other two since most common thru-hikes aren’t four-season I hadn’t encountered this prior.
The waterproof coatings allow your tent to survive long, consistent rainfall from causing tent failures, so how do waterproof fabric coatings work like PU and Silicone?
A polyurethane coating, or PU, is very common and has a long history as a waterproofing option, but it comes with side effects like tearing easily, and over time, this coating has issues where it can peel off.
A silicon coating, or Sil abbreviation, tends to strengthen fabrics when applied so they tend to stop tearing from occurring. These coatings have a better lifespan than PU-treated fabric, making them far more valuable to buyers.
As to the finishing of waterproofing, a PU-based coating can be seam-taped for waterproofing, whereas a silicone coating will need seam sealing after the fact.
Putting the Materials Against Each Other
Now, comparing and contrasting what you want from a tent and what materials offer what attributes makes it easier to see what ratings are best for what you need.
For someone who hikes in primarily dry weather, fabrics with more breathability will be better as the fabric’s water resistance won’t matter much. The same can be said about UL hikers looking to shave weight and maximize space in their packs.
However, for hikers that go out rain or shine, a DCF, PU, or Silicone-coated tent is a must to keep water from seeping in!
SilPoly vs SilNylon
So these are very similar, but what is the difference between the base core fabrics of nylon and polyester? The core difference is that nylon is hydrophilic, which means it absorbs water which means in lengthened rainfall the fabric tends to start to sag and get heavier.
Polyester, on the other hand, is hydrophobic, so it doesn’t absorb water like nylon, but it is less durable, generally heavier, and has less ability to be stretched. This means it needs much better placement and use to gain the maximum benefits.
The Sil before both their names only means they are covered with the silicone coating.
DCF vs. SilPoly
DCF and SilPoly are very similar, so what are the differences between Dyneema Composite Fabric and SilPoly, and what makes me choose one over the other?
DCF is the “gold standard” for most thru-hikers due to many things, among them the ease of drying and the incredibly lightweight. Many come in sub-one pound options, tents that matter over 2000+ miles.
The trade-off in choosing a SilPoly tent is that you would need to add a bit more weight but the cost would be a huge drop.
For many adding around a pound to their back to cut $300 off the purchase may be enough to make the change.
DCF vs. SilNylon
DCF and SilNylon, as above, are very similar in many regards, so what are the differences between Dyneema Composite Fabric and SilNylon, and what makes me choose one over the other?
As covered above, DCF is the “gold standard” for most thru-hikers due to many things, among them the ease of drying and the incredibly lightweight; many come in sub-one pound tents that matter over 2000+ miles.
The benefits to choosing a SilNylon fabric are a decently lightweight tent, the benefit of a more stretchy fabric making pitch less difficult, and it is the most popular by far for freestanding tents.
What Material Is Right For You?
Finding the right material highly depends on when and where you plan to use your tent. An Appalachian Trail thru-hike or the Continental Divide Trail have many similarities but also many differences.
Finding what will work for your needs comes down to a few specific needs that focus on your budget, the seasons, the expected weather, and UV exposure as these all will matter over the 4-6 month trek.
As expected, budget will always play a role in what is the suitable material for you. A PU-coated tent is much cheaper than a silicone-coated one and both are cheaper than a DCF tent.
In the end, you need to consider the budget as it is where you can drop some of the most significant weight from your pack; when pounds matter you want to drop all the pounds you can.
You will want a different tent if you are hiking in the spring, summer, fall, or winter. For the colder months, a PU-coated or silicone-coated is best as it won’t let the cold air in but also can breathe to help with condensation.
If you are trying to find something for a thru-hike in most cases, you will want a tent for Spring to Fall so the more multipurpose your gear the better it will work on the long trek.
Each material does better in different circumstances. If you will be in the sun and baking, then you want a tent that can take the harsh UV exposure.
If you are going to a wet or overly humid environment, you may want to choose another tent.
Spending time considering these little nuanced things will help you better decide what tent you need to bring with you.
If you are planning or expecting deep cold and snow, you may want to look at a more solid tent, possibly a Dyneema Composite Fabric tent as the thicker material can hold up to the snow weight.
If you will be hiking out in extreme heat, you may want to go for a tent made of polyester or nylon as they will better breathe and ensure plenty of airflow and venting to stay cooler.
This is down to the fabric breaking down due to overall sun exposure. Like my white Sil-Nylon tent slowly yellowing from exposure, this should matter little to a thru-hiker as the tent will not be pitched many full days in the beating sun.
So as long as you limit the number of solid days where your tent is fully exposed you shouldn’t see any issues. Due to Silnylon and Silpoly, DCF has no known issues with UV or prolonged exposure.
Final Thoughts on Choosing a Tent Material
Thru-hiking tents are made out of a variety of materials, each with its pros and cons. You should know what you need your tent to do before deciding on what material is best suited for what circumstance.
For example, if you want something in extreme heat, then nylon or polyester may work better than silicone-coated fabric which does not breathe as well regarding moisture retention.
The three main types of fabrics used to make thru-hiking tents are Silpoly, DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric), and Silnylon all have different properties so it can depend on what exactly your needs are which will be a deciding factor in what type of fabric works best for the situation.
Make sure you choose wisely though as any tent can be used, but you don’t want to be saddled with too much weight nor be stuck with something unnecessarily bulky for your thru-hike as replacing a tent on the trail is very expensive and can derail your completion.