It’s all well and good to have a tent with breathable 150D 190T Poly Oxford Fabric with a 2000mm waterhead and 7001 alloy poles or a tarp made with 10 oz/yd² Polycotton Canvas with a durable PU coating. But what does it all mean?
If you want to get into the science of it all then some of it can get pretty technical, but for the most part, the manufacturer has already looked into all this technical stuff and utilised the best materials to balance function & durability with the selling price.
Furthermore, wherever possible, we here at Snowys try to remove confusing jargon and describe things simply, but some industry terms must remain. So, to satisfy the curious shopper, we have explained below in simple terms what these things mean.
At least then you can drop a few of these terms into the conversation next time you are chewing the fat with your mates over your latest bit of kit.
If you just want to read up on certain categories, then you can skip ahead below:
Learn more about the gear that you’re buying. Image: Sea to Summit.
Terms that describe fabrics:
Polyester is one of the most common fabrics used in tents as it offers a good balance of performance and weight and has a softer feel than nylon (another common tent fabric).
Polyester has good UV resistance and doesn’t stretch or sag as much as nylon when wet, making it ideal for tent flysheets. It is usually made waterproof with the application of a PU coating.
Polyester fabric is super common on tents. Image: Coleman Australia
Nylon doesn’t have the same UV resistance as polyester and stretches when wet, so it is less commonly used for tent flysheets. Plus, it generally has a stiffer feel and is more expensive than polyester. However, nylon is generally used for backpacks as it has high-tear strength and is abrasion-resistant.
Nylon is used on a range of products. Image: Marmot
An abrasive and tear-resistant cloth used for heavier duty applications such as backpacks. It comes in many forms, is heavier in weight than the fabrics found in tent flysheets and is commonly made of either polyester or nylon.
Traditionally canvas was 100% cotton and was used to make swags and tents before synthetics made their way into the market. The cotton canvas was usually waterproofed with a coating of wax but the fabrics end up being quite heavy but are very breathable making it a great fabric for warm dry climates.
Along with breathability, canvas also offers good insulation, is quieter in the wind compared to synthetics and has good UV resistance.
Canvas is super durable and perfect for swags and touring tents. Image: Darche
Polycotton means the yarn, used to make the product, is a mix of polyester and cotton. Most tents and shelters today that are labelled as canvas are actually a polycotton canvas, meaning they are a blend of polyester and cotton. The combination of the two means that the canvas has the benefits of what both cotton and polyester have to offer.
The percentage of polyester is usually higher but what this means is that the fabric is lighter and stronger than cotton canvas and means PU coatings can be applied effectively to create a reliable waterproof barrier.
Polycotton blends the best of natural and synthetic fibres together. Image: Oztent
This simply refers to the type of weave used to create the fabric. An Oxford fabric is made with a basket weave that usually creates a visible texture. It is usually a sturdy fabric that is a lighter alternative to packcloth and is ideal for the application of coatings.
Another term that refers to how the fabric is constructed. Taffeta fabrics usually have a smoother crisper feel and are lighter weight when compared to Oxford fabrics but don’t offer the same tear strength and durability. Commonly found applications where weight is a primary consideration.
Taffeta is more suited for lightweight applications. Image: Marmot
Yet another term that refers to how the fabric is made. Pongee fabric is usually made with a combination of natural and synthetic fibres and is not easily damaged. It offers the benefits of both to create a thin, soft and easy to clean fabric.
It is ideal for sleeping bag linings as it is comfortable against the skin and does not add bulk and weight to the bag. Tightly woven Pongee is used for high-end umbrellas as it creates a strong dense fabric that blocks light with excellent waterproof qualities, and is easy to print on.
Pongee is thin, soft and easy to clean. Image: Sea to Summit
Cordura and Kodra
Both of these are heavy-duty premium brand name synthetics. Cordura was first created by Dupont in the US whereas Kodra comes from Korea. They are usually made of nylon but can be a blend of materials and are used in gear where exceptional durability, abrasion resistance and strength are required, such as the base of backpacks and abrasion points on apparel.
Kodra provides a lot of abrasion resistance. Image: Sea to Summit
You’ve probably heard of the ‘Poly tarp’, an affordable, durable and waterproof tarp that has 101 uses. These are made of Polyethylene or PE, which is a woven plastic material that creates a watertight, UV and abrasion resistant barrier.
It has a crinkly, stiff feel and comes in many different weights/thicknesses to suit many applications, most commonly as the good old poly tarp used as covers.
PE is an ideal material to use as a tarp. Image: Kookaburra
Used in reference to insect mesh, No-See-Um mesh has small holes, ideally less than 1mm, that are too small for tiny insects like midges to squeeze through. No-See-Um mesh is not necessarily durable enough for use in heavy-duty canvas tents and swags where a fibreglass type mesh which has larger holes (1-2mm) is preferred for durability.
If you’re camping with mozzies and midges, you’ll want No-See-Um mesh on your tent. Image: Oztent
GSM or Oz/Yd2
These are measurements of the weight of fabric and are the same thing except one is imperial (Oz/Yd2) and one is metric (GSM).
GSM is the weight in grams of a square metre of fabric, whereas Oz/Yd2 is the weight in ounces of a square yard of the fabric. Heavier is not always better and should be looked at in association with the denier, thread count and end-use.
This is a unit of measurement used to determine the thickness of the fibre used to make a fabric, so the higher the number the thicker the fibre. If 9000 metres of a single thread were to weigh 1 gram, it would be determined to be 1 denier (1D). If 9000 metres of another fibre were to weigh 150 grams, it would be determined to be 150 denier (150D).
Denier measures the thickness of fibres used in fabric. Image: Sea to Summit
This is the measure of the number of threads that can be counted in a square inch of a fabric. The higher the count, the denser the fabric which will provide better waterproofing properties.
The number is determined by adding together the threads running across the length and width, known as warp and weft. For example, if a fabric had 10 thin fibres along the length and 5 thicker fibres across the width, the fabric would have a thread count of 15.
Terms describing fabric treatments and performance:
A PU, or Polyurethane coating is applied to the inner side of fabric to give it waterproof properties. This coating affects the strength of the fabric so a quality PU coating will be as thin as possible to balance fabric strength with waterproof properties and longevity.
The PU coating is hydrophilic meaning it attracts water and is breathable, albeit not as breathable as not having the coating there at all.
This coating repels water and is also breathable. Image: Coleman Australia
Where a PU coating is laminated to one side of a fabric, siliconised fabric, usually nylon, is actually impregnated with liquid silicon which means the coating is on both sides of the fabric. The silicone impregnated fibre greatly improves tear strength allowing much lighter fabrics to be produced.
As silicone is hydrophobic or ‘water-hating’, siliconised fabrics create a reliably waterproof, albeit non-breathable, fabric, but they are generally more expensive than their PU coated counterparts.
Siliconised fabric improves the strength of the fabric. Image: Sea to Summit
Stands for ‘Durable Water Repellent’ and refers to a coating applied to the outside of a fabric to make water bead off it, kind of like how water does on a waxed car. A DWR coating is usually applied to the outer surface of waterproof and breathable fabrics to keep the surface dry and assist with breathability, which makes drying your gear easier.
Usually found on high-end tents and rainwear, a DWR coating is not permanent and needs re-application after significant use with aftermarket solutions from the likes of Nikwax and Grangers.
DWR is an essential treatment for waterproofing gear. Image: MSR
This is a measure of how waterproof a fabric is. The waterproof properties are created through the application of a PU coating or a laminating process such as used by Gore-Tex. For more info on waterhead ratings, check out this article here.
This simply refers to the fabric’s ability to pass water vapour. Cotton is highly breathable followed by many synthetics. PU coatings that are applied to create a waterproof barrier still offer some breathability which is why many jackets claim to be breathable and waterproof, but they pass water vapour at a much slower rate than uncoated fabrics.
Then there are expensive high-tech fabrics such as Gore-Tex and eVent which are made from 2-3 layers of laminated fabrics to provide water protection with a high level of breathability (higher than a PU coating). The science behind these is complicated and they all have their limitations in certain extreme climates, yet these are not usually noticed by the average user.
Gore-Tex provides water protection and breathability. Image: Gore-Tex
This is a process done during the manufacturing process that involves adding a layer of tape over the stitching to prevent any leaks in a tent, jacket, bag, etc. from where the needle has punctured the fabric during manufacturing.
Any gear that has weather-exposed seams that have not had this tape sealant applied cannot really be classed as waterproof without other design elements being added to stop leaks.
Seam sealing prevents leaks inside your gear. Image: Zempire
This is the ability of a fabric to withstand an existing tear or cut from becoming a larger tear.
Ripstop fabrics have a reinforcing fibre, often made of nylon, woven within the fabric which is usually visible in a grid-like pattern. The addition of this reinforcing fibre increases the tear strength of the fabric and limits the length of which a small tear or hole can reach.
Ripstop is a reinforcement that keeps your fabric from tearing under stress. Image: Sea to Summit
Types of metal used in outdoor products:
A type of metal that doesn’t offer the same strength as steel but is much lighter, in fact, steel is typically 2.5 times denser than aluminium. It’s strength, however, is ample for most of what we require in our camping gear.
It is more expensive than steel but is easily formed into all sorts of shapes and extrusions that steel cannot, such as sail tracks, lightweight tri-pegs and pole fittings. There are many different grades of aluminium depicted by four-digit numbers from 1000 upwards, with the 6000 and 7000 series being commonly found in camping gear.
An aluminium frame offers lightweight structure. Image: Oztent
Often confused with aluminium, which is a single element, alloy is made up of a combination of elements with aluminium generally being the predominant metal, a bit like a single malt versus a blended whisky. Combining elements to create an alloy means the material can be enhanced to best suit the strength and weight required for the end purpose.
Alloy gives you a bit more strength while still being light. Image: Darche
Steel is actually an alloy in that it is made up of a number of elements. But to simplify it, steel is a low-cost heavy material with a high tensile strength and is found in camping applications where weight is not a primary factor, but strength is.
From tent poles to stoves, fire pits and appliances, right down to the nuts, bolts and screws used to assemble your gear – steel can be found everywhere.
Steel is popular among camping gear for its strength. Image: Coleman Australia
The different types of plastic used on outdoor gear:
Think Lego. Those sharp little bricks that hurt more than anything in the world when you step on them, last a lifetime and keep performing, these are made from ABS plastic or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene.
It’s impact-resistant, strong and stiff, has good chemical resistance and performs well in high and low temperatures, and it is easy and affordable for manufacturers to work with. You’ll find ABS plastic on lanterns, head torches and tents that have plastic components.
Polyurethane, or PU, is extremely versatile and exists in many forms. In the camping industry, we often see it used for a waterproof coating on fabrics and foam we sleep on in camp mats. It can be made to be rigid or flexible and can also be found in adhesives, shoe soles, insulation and plastic parts for automobiles.
PU creates a waterproof barrier. Image: Sea to Summit
This stands for Thermoplastic Polyurethane and the difference between this and Polyurethane gets scientific. In a nutshell, TPU is stronger, less prone to cracking and more flexible than PU. But, given the higher cost, is not as commonly used for waterproof coatings on fabrics.
It is more commonly found in applications where durably flexible plastics are required, such as hoses and bladders like those that come in hydration packs and inflatable tent poles, and in the support structures of footwear.
TPU is flexible, making it perfect for inflatable tent poles. Image: Zempire
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), also referred to as vinyl, is used widely. It is a dense and strong material and can be rigid as in the case for plumbing pipes but can be made flexible with the addition of plasticisers.
The PVC we see in camping realms is a polyester fabric coated in PVC to create a heavy-duty fabric of sorts. This creates a completely waterproof, abrasion and UV resistant, but non-breathable barrier. These are commonly found in tent and swag floors, heavy-duty waterproof bags as well as transport covers for awnings and rooftop tents.
Coating fabric in PVC creates a strong fabric ideal for gear bags. Image: Darche
Zippers are pretty important:
Synonymous with a good quality zip, a YKK zipper indicates that a manufacturer has not snuck a cheap alternative into what is probably one of the most important elements of the product you have purchased, because if the zipper fails, you probably can’t use it. YKK zippers are strong, reliable and don’t become sticky as they get older.
YKK is an acronym for the company that makes the zippers, ‘Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha’ which originated in Japan before becoming a worldwide company. You will likely see a number associated with a zipper which indicates the gauge of the zipper. There are two types of zipper – coil and stamped. Coil zippers are smooth and handle curves and corners really well, whereas a stamped zipper is much chunkier looking and ideal for heavy-duty applications.
YKK’s biggest competitor is the Chinese based company ‘SBS’. They produce high-quality zippers, however, they have a long way to go if they want to knock YKK off their perch as the world’s zipper behemoth.
Zippers are an important feature of your gear. Image: Sea to Summit
Other confusing jargon:
A composite material is something that is made up of two different materials that work together to enhance the performance of the material. The materials are not blended together though, they can be seen as two different products within the final product. Fibreglass is an example of a composite material in that you can see bot materials in the final product, those being glass fibres set within a plastic.
This is a type of plastic that is reinforced with glass fibre. It offers excellent strength for its weight when compared to many metals, plus it is flexible. Fibreglass is generally used in tent poles as a more affordable but heavier alternative to alloy or aluminium tent poles.
Fibreglass is strong and flexible, making it ideal for tent poles. Image: Oztent
Known for its strength and minimal weight, carbon fibre is actually made from organic polymers, which very long and thin strings of molecules around 5-10 microns in diameter. It is commonly used on gear such as trekking poles and tent poles, as well as for other applications in fields such as aerospace, construction and engineering because of how strong yet lightweight it is.
IP stands for ‘Ingress Protection’ and is used in reference to how resistant a device is to water and dust ingress. It is usually followed by two numerals – the first one directly following IP being the level of dust protection on a scale of 0-6, and the second being the water-resistance on a scale of 0-9.
The higher the number, the better the protection. In the instance that an ‘X’ appears in place of a number, the device has not been tested for that ingress. IP67 has been tested for both dust and water, IPX7 has only been tested for water, IP6X has only been tested for dust.
You’ll find IP ratings on gear such as flashlights and head torches. Image: BioLite
Tensile strength is the force the material can withstand as it is pulled on opposite sides in opposite directions before it breaks. This measure is applied to many materials, but in fabric terms, it is not to be confused with tear strength.
What materials do you find perform best what it comes to outdoor gear?
About the writer...
Trekker, surfer, climber, mountain biker, runner, camper. Participator in most things… master of none.