What Makes a Tent Durable?

Do you choose durability over price?

You would be helping a lot of people if you did. You’re reducing global waste, encouraging high wages and supporting companies that prioritize value.

And what’s even more surprising, you’re probably saving money in the long run.

But evaluating the durability and strength of a tent is easier said than done. There are many factors to consider, so let’s not waste any more time and get right to it.

Aluminum or Steel Poles

Fiberglass poles were great in their time, but they’re no good now.

Why is that?

One reason is that they’re significantly less strong than aluminum or steel. But more importantly, they can cause irreparable damage to your tent because they can splinter when they snap, tearing the fabric of your tent.

The same can be said for carbon fiber poles, although they’re stronger and much more durable. In fact, you’ll have to do your best to break them.

However, they’re extremely expensive, making them a reasonable choice only if you’re going backpacking in unusually harsh weather conditions.

As a casual backpacker, you’re better off using aluminum poles. Although they’re weaker and heavier, they’re cheaper and bend rather than break, keeping your tent safe from permanent damage.

And if you buy high-quality aluminum tent poles, they’re unlikely to fail. Ideally, you want aircraft-grade aluminum, belonging to the 7000 series, such as 7001 or 7075 aluminum.

Steel poles are usually only used in family camping tents intended for car camping. Weight is not an issue, so you can bring heavy steel poles.

Fiberglass poles

Durable Fabric

The thicker the fabric, the heavier and more durable it is. So if you’re car camping and don’t need to watch the weight, always aim for the tent with the highest Denier-rating. But if you’re backpacking, you’ll want to strike a balance between weight and durability.

If your tent is going to be exposed to a lot of sun, choose a tent made of polyester, canvas or polycotton, as these fabrics have a significantly higher UV-resistance than nylon.

However, if you’re backpacking, bringing a tent made of canvas or polycotton is impractical, as these fabrics are extremely heavy. In this case, choose nylon or polyester, sacrificing durability for reduced weight (nylon vs polyester). Just be sure to pitch your nylon tent in the shade whenever possible!

For the strongest and most durable fabric that is still lightweight, choose polyester or nylon with a silicone coating, which is called silpoly or silnylon. Silpoly is more durable, silnylon is slightly stronger. For more information on how these two fabrics compare, check out this article.

Manufacturers can also add ripstop to their fabrics, which makes them stronger and less likely to tear. Adding ripstop to the fabric is more expensive but can be worth it if you’re camping in harsh weather conditions.

As for the fabric of your tent’s floor, you can’t go wrong with polyethylene or nylon with a polyurethane coating (to make it waterproof). Polyethylene is waterproof and more durable, but it’s heavy, making it an excellent choice if weight is not a problem. Nylon with a polyurethane coating on the other hand, is less durable but lighter, making it the appropriate choice for backpacking trips.

Keep in mind that durability, strength and weight are not the only factors in play. You also want to consider the fabric’s breathability, insulating capacity, waterproofing, packability and price. Depending on your situation, some of these factors may be more important than durability, so do your research!

Ripstop fabric shows small squares formed by the reinforcing threads.

Silicone Coatings Instead of Polyurethane Coatings

Most tents have a polyurethane (PU) or silicone coating on their rainfly because neither polyester or nylon are waterproof.

And although both options sound promising, silicone treated polyester or nylon (silpoly and silnylon) is stronger and more durable than PU coated polyester or nylon.

That’s because the chemicals in the PU coating concentrate the stress when a tear occurs right at the tip of the tear, which actually makes the fabric more prone to tearing.

Silicone on the other hand, is embedded in the fabric rather than coated on the fabric, which means it is stronger and less likely to wear off. Because silicone is elastic, it distributes tension across a large number of threads, resulting in higher tear strength.

In addition to increased durability and strength, silicone coatings offer several other benefits:

  • The tent dries more quickly, reducing the risk of having to backpack with a wet (heavy) tent and the risk of developing mold and hydrolysis (with polyester tents) during long-term storage.
  • Nylon tents won’t stretch as much (nylon becomes stretchy when wet). This means that your nylon tent will stay taut during a rain shower.

But wait, why would a silicone-treated tent get wet less easily?

Well, unlike silicone, polyurethane is vulnerable to UV, which is why PU coatings are only applied to the inside of your tent. On the outside comes a DWR coating (durable water repellent) that keeps the fabric dry… for a while.

The truth is that a DWR coating is not as durable as it sounds. It breaks down pretty quickly. And when it does, the rain can’t get inside because of the PU coating, but the fabric itself gets soaked with every downpour.

Silicone can be applied to both sides of the tent, making this problem less likely to occur. Along with greater durability and strength, this is why silicone-treated tents are generally considered superior.

I say “generally” because that’s not always the case. Consider that a PU coating from a top brand may be more effective than a silicone coating on a low-quality tent. It depends on the manufacturer.

So what’s the drawback of silicone coatings?

The price. They’re more expensive than polyurethane ones, but a tent with a high-quality silicone treatment will hold up much longer than one with a high-quality PU coating, making silicone-treated tents potentially less expensive in the long run.

Polyurethane coating wearing off
Unlike silicone, polyurethane is coated on the tent and will peel off over time.

Durable Seams And Stitching

Flat felled seams are your favorite in this case. A seam is stitched, folded over, flattened and folded over again, creating a thick seam with two patches of fabric. The more you fold the seams, the thicker and more durable the seam becomes.

In addition, the raw edges of the fabric, which are prone to unravel, are all enclosed in the seam and can’t unravel.

Another indicator of quality stitching is a high number of stitches per inch, which indicates there’s less strain on each stitch, meaning the fabric won’t come apart easily.

Avoid tents with loose threads or missing stitches on the seams. These are signs of low-quality stitching.

High-quality stitching will show extra stitching in the corners and other high-stress areas, such as the guyout points. It’s even better if they use thicker threads for this job.

a flat felled seam
A flat felled seam

Heavy-Duty Zippers

These are usually made of sturdier material than plastic, like nylon-coil or metal.

Metal is durable but less flexible than coil, meaning that it’s more likely to break when going around corners.

Plus, coil is cheaper and less heavy than metal, which is another reason why metal zippers are rare in tents.

A good zipper doesn’t jam and zippers smoothly while offering some resistance. A sticky feeling and too much resistance are indicators of a low-quality zipper.

PRO TIP: Tent zippers with the acronym “YKK” on the slider are extremely durable. (What does YKK mean?)

Coil zipper teeth
Coil zipper teeth

Design of The Tent

Not every tent looks the same, right?

Well, not every tent design is of equal durability and strength.

Cabin tents for example, have straight walls to increase comfort, but that makes them vulnerable to high winds. They also tend to be pretty cheap, both in price and durability.

A geodesic tent on the other hand, is designed to withstand high winds and heavy snow. That’s because they feature more tent poles than the regular dome tent.

But the individual design of a tent should also be considered. This depends entirely on the manufacturer. Are the dimensions correct? Are the different parts correctly aligned with each other? Have any weak spots been reinforced?

These are obviously questions that you won’t find answers to, which is why it’s best to buy a tent from a reputable brand with a lot of experience in the business.

A Coleman cabin tent in the woods
A cabin tent—which is prone to high winds.

What Else?

  • How the fabric is woven: Twill weaves are stronger than plain weaves because the threads are packed more tightly together. Unfortunately, twill weaves are more expensive to produce than plain weaves, which is why cheap brands tend to stick with plain woven fabrics.
  • The thread count: Closely related to the denier-rating (D), the thread count (T) doesn’t measure the thickness of the threads, but rather the number of horizontal and vertical threads per square inch. The higher this number, the tighter and stronger the fabric.
  • Tear resistance of the fabric: The same type of fabric is not always of equal quality. One way to test the durability of a fabric is through the “Wyzenbeek Test”. A mechanical arm covered in cotton duck fabric moves back and forth against the test fabric, with one back and forth sweep considered as one “double rub”. The sooner the fabric shows signs of wear, the weaker it is. 3,000 double rubs is considered delicate while more than 30,000 rubs is considered extra heavy duty. Unfortunately, tent manufacturers don’t share this info when you buy a tent, so you’ll have to contact them to get this information. However, it’s needless to say that in general, cheaper brands are using lower-end fabrics.
  • Reduced fire retardants: Mountain Hardwear (MH) recently removed fire retardants from their tents because they have been proven to be harmful to humans. The good news is that MH can now apply silicone on both sides of their tents, which wasn’t possible when flame retardants were used. This increases the tear strength and water repellency.

How the “Wyzenbeek Test” works:

But Most Importantly: Take Care Of Your Tent

I can’t stress this enough. The way you treat your tent has the most impact on its durability. You can have a beast of a tent, if you don’t care for it, it will never reach its potential.

So here are a few tips to increase your tent’s longevity:

    • Don’t pitch your tent on sharp stones and sticks.
    • Protect the floor of your tent with a groundsheet or footprint.
    • Never store a wet tent for more than half a day, or you risk developing mold.
    • Take it easy on the zippers. Use both hands, especially when going around corners. Don’t brute-force the zipper when it gets stuck in the fabric. Use a zipper lubricant after every season.
    • Make sure there is no dirt in your tent when you pack it up. Don’t wash the tent in the washing machine; instead, set it up in the backyard and sponge it off with a non-detergent wash.
    • Take care of your poles. Make sure the ends of the pole sections are not banging together when pitching your tent. Don’t overstress your poles and clean them prior to storage.
    • Don’t walk in a tent with your crampons or ice cleats on.
    • At home, store your tent in a larger bag. Leave it open so that the tent can breathe.
    • Limit UV exposure to prevent UV damage. This one is very important, especially when your tent is made of a fabric vulnerable to UV. Either pitch your tent in the shade, disassemble it at the beginning of each day, hang a tarp over your tent, pitch your tent underneath a cheap party tent or treat your tent with a solarproof spray as explained in the video below:

Let’s Wrap Things Up

Determining the quality of your tent can be tricky. We’ve discussed some indications of a high-quality tent, but most manufacturers don’t provide all the necessary information.

You may need to contact the brand and ask about the zippers, the number of threads, or how their fabric performs in the Wyzenbeek Test.

Other indications, such as the fabric or tent pole material, are usually shared with the public, so be sure to look for a tent that comes out strong on those aspects.

Fortunately, there’s no reason to get to the bottom of every tent, because you can rely on high-end brands like MSR or Alps Mountaineering. These guys have made a name for themselves and you know exactly what quality you’re going to get.

But remember that a high-quality tent can wear out pretty quickly if you neglect it. So take good care of your tent with the above tips and you can expect your tent to last a decade.

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