As you try to understand outdoor gear’s performance, you’ll notice it’s hard to wade through all the grandiose marketing that gets applied. Naturally, every company wants you to think their materials are excellent and without flaw, which results in grand but vague descriptions (e.g., “super light,” “stormproof,” “bomber”). Advantages get touted (e.g., DCF having outstanding tear strength) while weaknesses go unmentioned (e.g., DCF fairs poorly under abrasion).
That’s understandable – but problematic if you’re really trying to find the best gear and materials. The only way around this is to take a deep dive into the materials to understand the trade-offs involved fully. Here we’ll do just that for fabrics and coatings as it pertains to tents.
X-Mid fabric under the microscope
In particular, the X-Mid tents have been a pioneer in the use of polyester in lightweight tents. Since they are the best known and likely best selling polyester tents, they’ve had to swim upstream against a lot of misinformation on the topic. Thankfully polyester is getting more popular and looks to be taking over with companies like Black Diamond, Six Moon Designs, MEC, Yama, Lightheart Gear etc., recently making the switch. But it’s still worth taking the time to explain why polyester is so much better and explain the rest of the materials choices we use in the X-Mid. As you might expect, all the X-Mid materials choices are reasoned from first principles to deliver the highest all-around performance. That’s not to say there aren’t compromises, though – the most durable fabric will never be the lightest.
20D Sil/PEU Polyester
The X-Mid uses a 20 denier polyester fabric for the fly and floor, which is sil/PEU coated. 20 denier (or 20D) refers to the thread weight (in grams per 9km), where lightweight tents range from 7-30D. At 20D, the X-Mid is a bit more durable than most lightweight tents from mainstream companies (e.g., Big Agnes, MSR), which are typically 10-15D, but it’s still a light fabric and needs to be treated responsibly. We think 20D fabric is an excellent, well-rounded choice because it is durable enough to use without a groundsheet if you use proper care (e.g., checking camp spots for sharp sticks and rocks). In contrast, lighter floors such as 10D commonly require a groundsheet and thus ends up just as heavy and more complicated when you add that. 30D is a good choice too, but we can save some weight with 20D, and we’ve never had a failure with it.
Polyester vs Nylon
The most contentious fabric topic these days is polyester or, more specifically, polyester vs. nylon. There has been an unfortunate amount of misinformation about polyester, with otherwise reputable tent companies making unfortunate statements about it.
For example, one competitor writes:
That makes nylon sound pretty good, but these points are either false (nylon being smaller packing, poly being “a lot cheaper“) or misleading (nylon being “ounce for ounce tougher”, poly being “lower end“), and this paragraph skips the main advantages of polyester: no-sag in wet conditions, fast dry, and minimal water weight gain.
The truth is that nylon comes in a variety of formulations, where the best possible nylon (“nylon 6,6”) does have an edge in strength over modern polyester, but it is slight. Instead of believing a tent company with a vested interest in promoting one type of fabric, we can look to DuPont who actually produce these fibers. In their documents here, they provide the strength of polyester vs. nylon 6,6 and give that latter a 1% advantage in ounce for ounce tensile strength (circled below):
Of course, there is more to fabrics than simply fibers, and other sources do give nylon 6,6 fabrics a larger edge (reports of 10-15% advantage are fairly common). So let’s grant nylon 6,6 a 15% advantage (which is far from the “2x stronger” marketing claims you might run into). That still leaves nylon ounce for ounce inferior in the field for two reasons. The first is that nylon is a “hydrophilic” (water-loving) molecule, so when you camp in wet conditions, it absorbs water and swells up. That makes it heavy (it can gain 100% of its weight in water pretty easily), slow to dry (since the water is in the fibers), and weaker by about 10% (since the swelling process stretches the molecular bonds). You can read more about those hydrophilic chemical properties here. Most noticeably, in wet conditions the material expands by 2-4% which is why most tents look limp after rain and with the now loose fly commonly stuck to the inner tent. All of those are pretty major issues for tent fabric.
Focusing on strength vs. weight, though, water absorption means that any strength advantage nylon has in dry conditions will disappear in wet/stormy conditions (where you most need that strength) because it gives up 10% strength while potentially doubling in weight. When you set up a nylon tent, it might be 10% stronger for the same weight, but once the rain starts, there’s no strength advantage – you’re just carrying around a heavier shelter. That’s why everyone trying to sell you nylon only talks about the strength of the dry fabric.
What about poly? It is hydrophobic (repels water) and thus does none of that. In wet stormy conditions, poly remains strong, light, fast-drying, and retains an excellent taut pitch—outstanding qualities for tent fabric. Even if nylon had a sustained 15% strength advantage, the no-sag and fast dry characteristics of poly would be worth it.
The second significant weakness of nylon is UV degradation. Nylon is highly susceptible to UV degradation, where even if you break camp early and set up late, your tent will degrade in strength over a few years. A new nylon tent can lose 10% strength in a weekend of pure sun or in roughly a season of regular use if you take it down in the daytime hence why 5-10-year-old nylon tents are commonly under 50% tear strength. This was less of an issue for older, thicker nylon because UV can only penetrate so far but ultralight nylon fabrics of 7-30D are very thin where UV can penetrate a larger % of the way through the material to cause proportionately higher strength losses. Conversely poly is naturally UV resistant and thus particularly well suited to ultralight shelters where it enjoys a much longer lifespan. The initial strength of nylon might get the marketing hype, but what actually matters is how strong a tent is throughout its lifespan, and here poly has the clear edge. In a rare moment of openness, Nemo – who makes both nylon and poly tents – agree that polyester “holds up better over time“.
To conclude, polyester offers you no sag performance, fast dry, and good strength throughout its’ substantially longer lifespan, while nylon offers you an initial 15% edge in strength that disappears as soon as it rains or in a season of UV exposure, leaving you with a saggy, slow drying, heavy tent that is steadily getting weaker.
The inescapable conclusion here is that nylon is less well suited to tents – so why is it popular? After poly and nylon were invented in world war II, most tents did use polyester. With the movement to lighter tents in the ’80s, backpacking tents switched to nylon simply because only nylon was available in lighter weight versions (due to demand from other industries with more sway than the small tent industry). Meanwhile, poly remained only available in heavyweight versions and thus relegated to use solely in heavier mountaineering and car camping tents. In the last 5 years that has finally changed with lightweight poly now commercially available. Thus, lightweight tents are switching to polyester, with many brands making the switch each year. It’s a slow process, and some brands are dragging their feet that have previously dug their heels in but a long list of companies are now using polyester for their ultralight tents like Black Diamond, MEC, Yama Mountain Gear, Trekker Tent, Lightheart Designs, Six Moon Designs and more every year.
Lastly, what about the claims that polyester is cheap? This is hardly a good argument against poly since it would be wonderful if the superior tent material was also lower cost, but unfortunately, that is just misinformation meant to make poly look bad. Lighter fabrics use smaller threads (e.g., 20D), so they have a higher thread count, making them more expensive to weave. Since historically only heavier/low thread count poly was available, it was relatively affordable. Now that high thread count poly is available, it costs about the same as high thread count nylon. Browse the fabric selections at a fabric retailer like RipstopbytheRoll.com and you’ll see the prices are roughly the same.
The traditional way of coating tent fabrics is with a PU (polyester urethane) coating, which is highly problematic stuff. It substantially weakens the material and slowly breaks down from water (seriously). Worse, it absorbs water inside so it feels dry when it’s not (much like nylon). Then you store your tent thinking it’s dry yet both the nylon and PU are hiding moisture inside, so when you pull it out 6 months later you find the coatings have broken down and are delaminating.
A much better coating is silicone. It’s solidly waterproof (when applied heavily enough) while actually strengthening the fabric instead of weakening it, plus being largely immune to degradation. It’s way better than traditional PU but still has a couple of downsides: you can’t seam tape it, and it’s so slick that tent floors become awkwardly slippery if you’re camped on any sort of a slope.
More recently, a new formulation of PU has come along called polyether (vs. ester) urethane that doesn’t add as much strength as silicone but doesn’t lose as much as traditional PU either, and it solves both the degradation issues of conventional PU and the downsides of silicone (slippery, can’t seam tape). Confusingly, this coating is still called PU but is also called PE and PEU. It’s hands-down better than older PU, which is why mainstream companies are making the switch. About 80% of premium mainstream tents are now switching, and older PU formulations are becoming obsolete on premium tents.
With the X-Mid, we use dual coatings where the primary coating is a heavy coat of silicone on the outside for high waterproofness and additional strength. Then we also apply a thinner coat of PEU on the inside to seam tape it for you and make the floor non-slippery. Some companies will tell you that using only silicone is stronger yet and theoretically it is, but the critical point here is that we are using a similar amount of silicone as most silpoly but then we also add a second lighter coat of PEU that has little effect on strength. Yes, it would be even stronger yet (slightly) if that second coat was sil too, but the difference is slight and PE brings several advantages (seam taping, non-slip floors). Compared to single coated silpoly, we are paying more for the additional inner PEU coating, so we can then spend more for seam taping because that gives you a better product that is ready to go, whereas user seam sealing is a hassle for you and doesn’t work as well.
All of that ignores the most crucial coating related topic: is it waterproof? That’s way more important than splitting hairs on tear strength. The industry-standard approach here is to provide an HH specification for the new fabric, which tells you how much water you’d have to pile onto the fabric to get enough pressure to push it through. Unfortunately, these new specifications are almost useless because it ignores wear/degradation. Virtually all fabrics are waterproof enough when new but then degrade where a high initial HH might not translate to one down the road, so the key question is not how waterproof the coatings are but rather how well they hold up over time. DCF, for example, starts very high (8,000mm) but quickly forms microcracks and pinholes under stress, so it can soon be at 500 mm.
Similarly, traditional PU also degrades and eventually leaks – causing customers to ask for even higher initial HH like 5,000mm or even 10,000mm. Manufacturers oblige but that just lowers tear strength even more and can still degrade eventually. What campers really need is not really HH but rather less degradation. Sil/PU and PEU coatings can also be very high, but if they are thin coatings or not well impregnated into the fabric, they will wear down quickly. All coatings degrade a surprising amount (but PU and DCF are the worst), where the key is to keep them above ~600mm for as long as possible because real-world leaking happens at about 600mm in heavy rain.
Below is a chart showing the hydrostatic head of the X-Mid’s fabric (green) as it is subjected to wear cycles compared to 4 other materials from popular competitors. We haven’t cherry-picked which competitors to include. Instead, we submitted our fabric to an independent lab for testing who had recently tested these other fabrics on their own accord and provided the results to us for context. The blue and grey fabrics, in particular, are used by two major competitors for almost their entire product lines.
You’ll notice all but one of these fabrics start at 3,500 mm – that isn’t the real maximum for these fabrics but just the upper limit of the testing equipment. The key takeaway from this chart is that the X-Mid fabric isn’t as high as some fabrics early on (e.g., 5,400 wear cycles), but because the coatings are deeply impregnated, it holds that waterproofing for longer. By the end (16,200 wear cycles), it is the most waterproof fabric (Note: 16,200 wear cycles roughly corresponds to 3 months of continuous high winds and heavy rain). That performance at the end is what matters. Like tear strength, the goal isn’t to boast the highest new spec but rather avoiding dropping too low later in the tent’s lifespan. For HH, the critical thing here is how long a fabric can maintain ratings comfortably above 600 mm and here we see the X-Mid fabric is on track to do that for longer than any of these competitors. The grey and orange fabrics perform well too, but the blue and yellow are problematic.
In more detail, the blue fabric is from a competitor who claims it at 5,000 mm and writes that it is “highly waterproof” and “will not degrade in its first year” but it actually starts out about 1,200 mm and begins to degrade right away, so it reaches 720mm by the end, which is barely sufficient. The yellow and orange fabrics are from another company and spec’d at 2,000 mm and 4,000 mm respectively. Those ratings are correct since they start off that high, and yet both drop rapidly after a certain point which shows how uninformative these new fabric specs are. Even their 4,000 mm one is less waterproof than the X-Mid by 16,200 wear cycles. Likely their coatings are thin or not that well impregnated, so once the coating starts to wear through, the rating rapidly drops. The yellow one is questionable by the end, while the orange one is still waterproof but on a worrisomely steep decline.
The grey fabric is the main fabric of a large competitor who uses it throughout their line. It shows good performance with the second-highest end result and a moderately steep decline indicating it’ll still be waterproof for a long time. Of all these fabrics, though, the X-Mid fabric shows the most gentle decline because the coatings are so heavily impregnated. At 1,600 mm after 16,200 cycles, it is on track to remain waterproof for the longest time and could likely repeat the entire test again while staying above 600 mm. We rate this fabric at 2,000 mm as a conservative number that reflects the mid-lifespan results more so than the new fabric but note that it is actually more waterproof in the long run than these competing fabrics rated at up to 5,000 mm. That’s really what you need to know if you’re concerned about reliable waterproofing.
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