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fabric types for tarps, tents and swags


  • the lightest, strongest fabric is Dyneema cuben fibre but it is also the most expensive
  • most hiking tents and tarps are made from polyester as this is a good compromise on weight, functionality and price
    • pros:
      • inexpensive
      • very light
      • available in different thicknesses to optimise weight vs durability
      • dries out fast
      • better UV resistance, more abrasion resistant, more waterproof, holds less water and thus less sagging when wet than simple nylon
    • cons:
      • degrade over time, especially if left in the sun a lot
      • not has tear resistant or abrasion resistant as ripstop nylon
      • these are usually waterproofed with a polyurethane (PU) coating but then it loses it breathability and breaks down more readily in UV exposure and requires some care to be kept clean and dry for storage. It is hydrophilic and attracts water and thus can sag when wet.
      • some have a silicon coating (“silnylon”) for extra waterproofing, durability (more stretch and tear strength) and UV protection but this does make them less breathable, more slippery, water shakes off more readily, can be made lighter, and it also means logos cant be applied nor seam sealing tapes (seams require manual application of a liquid seam sealant)
      • some have silicone coating on the outside and PU coating on the inside of the polyester (“Sil/PU”) which allows logos to be applied and seam sealing tapes to the PU surface
      • get hotter than heavier but more breathable polycotton or cotton fabrics but this can be partly addressed by using a Blockout fly material and good mesh window ventilation
      • get colder than polycotton or cotton fabrics
      • can be more noisy in the wind than heavier fabrics especially if not set up taut
      • tears cannot be sewn as with a polycotton or cotton fabric
      • less flammable than light cotton but instead tends to melt
  • touring tents often have heavier, more durable, less noisy and more waterproof floors made of either:
    • PU coated poly Oxford polyester:
      • a heavy grade polyester material with a PVC coating (Oxford is a type of weave), the PVC makes it abrasion resistant but is not breathable
      • also used in expensive tarps
    • taffeta weave nylon
      • smoother, crisper feel, and are lighter in weight compared to Oxford fabrics but not the same tear strength and durability
  • some tarps, swags, touring tents, bell tents, yurts, tipis are made with more durable, more insulating but much heavier cotton canvas or polycotton canvas
    • waxed cotton canvas
      • pros:
        • some have been treated with fire retardants if planned use is as a hot tent with a wood stove inside
        • more UV resistant than synthetics
        • more insulating and more breathable than synthetics
      • quieter in the wind
        • great for warm dry conditions
      • cons:
        • very heavy (especially waxed cotton canvas), especially when wet
        • larger pack size
        • take a long time to dry out
        • these generally need weathering (treated with water and allowed to dry)
        • waterproof rating is usually only around 1500mm unless waxed cotton canvas
    • polycotton canvas
      • pros:
        • lighter than cotton canvas
        • PU coatings can be applied for better waterproofing
      • cons:
        • less breathable than cotton canvas
  • mesh
    • insect mesh comes in various hole sizes
    • many are designed only to stop mosquitoes and are thus susceptible to tiny biting midges or sand flies entering
    • some are designed to also stop the tiny biting midges or sand flies entering and these are called “No-See-Um” mesh
      • these have holes < 1mm but are generally not as durable

Grading of material

  • Denier
    • is the number which tells the weight in grams of 9000 meter of a fibre of yarn.
    • It is denoted by alphabet D.
    • a single strand of silk is approximately one denier
    • a 9000-metre strand of silk weighs about one gram
    • So 210D Polyester means, that 9000 meter of polyester will weigh 210 grams.
    • Denier (D) = Tex (T) x 9
  • Tex
    • is a metric version of Denier and is the weight in grams for 1000 meter of a fibre of yarn.
    • thus 210T polyester will mean 1000 meter of polyester will weigh 210 grams.
  • GSM
    • the weight in grams per square meter
  • thickness
    • used for PVC
    • 0.3mm = 11.8mil (thousandths of a inch)

Waterproof rating

  • usually stated as mm of hydrostatic head (HH) of water pressure that it resists
  • flooring needs much more waterproofing as your weight can push water in
  • 1000mm is OK for light rain as a fly
  • 1500mm is generally considered “waterproof” as a fly
  • 3000mm is good for most rain as a fly and is reasonable for a floor
  • 5000mm or higher is preferred for floors, many higher quality floors for hiking tents are rated at 10,000-25,000mm waterhead
  • DCF (Dyneema Cuben fiber) is waterproof and waxed canvas has a natural waterproof performance so these typically do not have mm ratings
  • seam sealing
    • when a polyurethane-coated (or PU-coated) waterproof fabric is stitched together, leaking points remain within the seams. Tape is then applied with heat and pressure, producing a seal.
  • Durable Water Repellency (DWR) is a water repellant coating that is often applied to fabrics to make water bead and roll off but it is not permanent and needs to be re-applied over time

fabrics - strength/durability/waterproofing vs weight vs price

Dyneema cuben fibre (DCF)

  • this approaches the most ideal material in terms of tear resistant strength, durability, waterproofing and weight but it is VERY EXPENSIVE and is used in ultralight tarps and tents and is the preferred option for 2000km trail hikes
  • 0.51oz (17g/m2) 100XT Dyneema is probably the best strength Dyneema for tarp purposes
    • you can get even lighter, less expensive Dyneema but they will not last long
  • generally provides 15,000mm waterhead protection
  • does not stretch as much as most other lightweight fabrics nor does it sag when wet as does silnylon, the lack of stretch may make it less suitable for some types of pitches where stretching the fabric is needed
  • better UV resistance than nylon
  • although the fibre is 15x stronger than steel per weight, it is subject to abrasion damage due to the Mylar layer
  • seam failure from needle hole expansion is a common issue with films and nonwovens, so seams have to be bonded and/or hot taped and tape adhesives are often a weak point and can degrade before the rest of the shelter wears out

ripstop nylon

  • a superlight tarp which provides a great material for strength, durability, waterproofing (although not as good as Dyneema cuben fibre on any of these and is heavier much much more affordable)
  • usually is PU coated for waterproofing to around 3000mm waterhead
  • some are also siliconised for better UV protection but this increases their sag when wet
  • most are 20D for superlight purposes (15D versions are lighter but less durable, while 30-40D are much stronger but heavier placing them in the “light” tarp category)

taffeta nylon

  • taffeta nylon is heavier than rip-stop but stronger
  • often used in tent floors

Aramid nylon

other nylon

  • a light material although not as strong as ripstop nylon for same weight
  • nylon is more abrasion resistant and has a much better strength-to-weight ratio than polyester due to its stretchiness but absorbs more water in the rain which makes it heavier and larger when wet and thus it sags more, and the stretchiness tends to give a less aesthetic pitch, and is more susceptible to UV degradation
  • usually is PU coated for waterproofing to around 3000mm waterhead
  • some are also siliconised for better UV protection but this increases their sag when wet


  • polyester is any polymer whose monomers are linked together by ester bonds and is commonly used to make clothing
  • whilst lighter 30D and 75D PU-coated polyester (~105gsm) is used as tent flies and 100D (~150gsm) to 210D is used for tent floors, heavier duty polyester is what is generally used in the traditional heavy tarps found in most 4WD and building retail shops
  • they are great for car camping and home uses where weight is not an issue and they are generally very cheap but strong

polyethylene (PE)

  • Polyethylene is a polymer consisting of many ethylene monomers bonded together
  • these are VERY noisy in the wind or if walked on
  • they are not very durable and usually have a life span of only 1-2 yrs as a tarp
  • they are quite flammable and easily damaged
  • 0.1mm thick “transparent” versions are cloudy (often used as mattress protectors)
  • best as a ground sheet or for covering a load, not great for wind protection for camping due to their noise

polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

  • one of the most commonly made plastics (eg. PVC pipes, PVC coated tent floors) but also one of the more toxic to make and for the environment as it may be considered hazardous waste
  • PVC consists of long repeating units of the carcinogenic chemical, vinyl chloride (this is used in the manufacture of PVC and evaporates readily and breaks down in a few days to formaldehyde)
    • If you breathe high levels of vinyl chloride, you will feel dizzy or sleepy. These effects occur within 5 minutes if you are exposed to about 10,000 ppm of vinyl chloride. You can easily smell vinyl chloride at this concentration. It has a mild, sweet odor. If you breathe still higher levels (25,000 ppm), you may pass out. Extremely high levels of vinyl chloride can damage the liver, lungs, and kidneys and can cause death.
    • after exposure, most of the vinyl chloride is excreted in urine within a few days however, some is metabolised in the liver to other more reactive compounds which stay much longer
    • chronic inhalation over years may cause changes in the liver and may increase risk of a rare liver cancer angiosarcoma.
    • vinyl chloride levels are regulated in drinking water, food, and air
    • exposure is most likely in PVC manufacturing workers and in those who live near a hazardous waste site, municipal landfill, or a chemical plant that produces vinyl chloride or PVC
    • whilst PVC does off-gas especially in the first few days when opened to air, and one can easily smell this, it is not clear how detrimental such exposure is, but it is probably best to let it air for a few days before using it
  • much less flammable, less noisy, more transparent in its pure form, and more durable than PE
  • PVC coated tarps generally last more than 10yrs
  • you can buy 0.3mm thick transparent PVC tarps which are 99.9% transparent and which bock longer infrared waves so create a greenhouse effect

reinforced ripstop PVC

thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) sheets

  • soft, clear but strong and scratch and abrasion resistant elastomer material made from rubber and plastic
  • aliphatic TPUs are often used as a variably breathable waterproof clear plastic fashion fabric
  • degrade with prolonged temperatures above 100degC (generally has a melting point of 120 – 220 °C)
  • aromatic TPUs in particular degrades with prolonged exposure to UV light (by yellowing), aliphatic ones are more UV resistant
  • dark tinted TPU is more UV resistant
  • more expensive than PVC and tends to be tougher and with more abrasion resistance and is more environmentally friendly but does tend to yellow over time

XF film

  • a patented Swiss film that makes tarps strong and waterproof

ripstop polycotton canvas

  • 8oz versions as used by OzTents have 1500mm waterhead rating

polyester/terylene cotton (polycotton)

  • T/C is thicker, heavier, more durable, more effectively blocks sunlight and heat, and provides a more fire retardant option to nylon
  • its unique material technology enables it to be more water-resistant with each use through the fabric’s interaction with moisture in the outdoors, and fFabric performance can be enhanced by setting it up next to a river, stream, or even drizzle.
  • 210g/m² T/C with DWR coating for extra waterproofing is used in OneTigris T/C tents such as OneTigris Conifer T/C A frame hot tent
  • more durable than 70D polyester but perhaps similar to 150D polyester

cotton canvas

  • more durable and much more resistant to embers, punctures and gives more shade from the sun than lighter nylon tarps
  • UV treated cotton is more UV resistant than poly-cotton
  • less noisy in the wind
  • less hot and muggy in warm conditions, and less cold in cold conditions than polyester
  • cross-weave cotton fabric with rip-stop style stitching may be stronger than poly-cotton or polyester
  • more environmentally friendly than synthetics
  • long lasting if looked after (perhaps 10yrs or more) but they are very heavy and even more heavy when wet
  • 4x3m tarps may come in at just under 6kg eg. Outhaus

oilskin cotton

waxed cotton

  • cotton impregnated with paraffin wax “Japara” - a highly water resistant cloth, breathable, but without the stiffness in the cold or yellowing with age which became popular in WWI and 1950s for jackets but gradually were displaced by lighter synthetics
  • typically needs annual re-waxing

comparison of tarp materials

material approx. gram per sq.m weight for 3x3m tarp waterproofing cost for 3x3m tarp
Dyneema cuben fibre 24gsm ~220g 15,000mm $AU600-800
15D UltraSil silnylon eg. Sea to Summit 39gsm 350g 1500mm? $AU320
20D ripstop PU silnylon eg. Mont BatWing 50gsm ~450g 3000mm $AU280
DD Hammocks Superlight PU nylon (?20D) 54gsm 490g 3000mm $AU150
30D ripstop silnylon eg. WE Overhang Ultralight 78gsm 700g 1500mm $AU400
190T polyester PU eg. DD Hammocks 3×3 88gsm 790g 3000mm $AU100
40D PU silnylon eg. Aqua Quest Guide 100gsm 910g 5000mm $AU150
75D ripstop polyester eg. WE Overhang 117gsm 1050g 3000mm $AU260
105GSM polyethylene “Medium Duty” 105gms ~1050g start at ~$AU17 or $AU30 for clear versions
160GSM polyethylene “Heavy Duty” 160gsm ~1700g start at ~$AU30
205GSM polyethylene “Extreme” 205gsm ~2200g start at $AU80
280GSM ripstop polycotton canvas eg. Oztrail awning 280gsm 2520g $AU200
290GSM polyethylene ABCTarp 290gsm ~3000g $AU60
oilskin 3000g ~$AU400
0.3mm clear PVC 365gsm 3285g $AU380
420GSM ripstop polycotton canvas eg. most swags 420gsm 3780g
500GSM reinforced PVC Marson 500gsm ~5000g $AU100
680GSM reinforced ripstop PVC Marson Titan 680gsm ~7000g $AU150
australia/shelter_material.txt · Last modified: 2023/05/08 19:37 by gary1

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