Polycotton vs Polyester Tents – Get the Full Lowdown in 3 Minutes

It was so easy in the old days – you bought a canvas tent and that was your lot. It weighed a ton and took the best part of a day to put up, but at least you knew where you were.

These days there are a bewildering array of different fabrics and materials used to construct all the varieties of tent on offer, and it certainly becomes difficult to understand the various trade-offs and compromises you have to make by choosing one against another.

Take the Polycotton vs Polyester debate – it is the camping question of the day whether it is worth paying extra for a polycotton version of the exact same tent, sometimes hundreds of pounds more than their purely man-made siblings. In this article we’ll try and answer that question.

So what is Polycotton?

Polycotton is a hybrid of natural cotton and man-made polyester. The two yarns are weaved together, typically in a ~65% cotton to ~35% polyester ratio, with the idea being that you obtain the best properties of each in the final fabric.

People usually imagine that the old canvas tents were made from cotton, but actually canvas was a hemp-based material – yup, you’ve guessed it – derived from the cannabis plant! Probably best not to smoke it though….

In later years, canvas morphed into a cotton based or linen-based material and was used for many applications from painting to yachting sails.

Benefits of Cotton

Cotton, Hemp, Linen and Canvas – the important common connection between these textiles is that they’re natural and not fabricated in a laboratory by a mad scientist. They offer excellent breathability as a result and have an in-built insulation and warmth which man-made materials like polyester and nylon struggle to replicate.

The breathability of a tent is highly important, because without the ability for moisture to escape, you will get condensation forming inside which can be a fairly unpleasant phenomenon, especially when you get dripped on by your own liquid breath in the morning – not nice!

Cotton and canvas tents adapt well to changing weather conditions by offering coolness in hot weather, and warmness in cold weather. They also have a lovely tactile quality and a reassuring strength and durability which the man-made fibers just don’t possess.

Disadvantages of Cotton and Canvas tents

So if Cotton and Canvas tents were so amazing, why did they fall out of favour? Well, the insulating properties of cotton arise due to the bulkiness and loft of the thread. This leads to heavy tents which are more tricky to transport and take up more space.

They require more maintenance, predominantly because they can absorb alot of moisture and then need thorough drying out to avoid mildew and mould forming when packed away. Also, they can rip quite easily if accidentally snagged.

Finally, cotton and canvas are quite expensive materials, which leads to more expensive tents.

Canvas tent

Polyester as a material for tents

Polyester is a man-made polymer material which essentially has a repeating chemical structure which replicates itself to form sheets of continuous, uniform fabric. It is very lightweight and can also be made highly waterproof by coating with water repellent chemicals

Polyester is cheap to manufacturer and as such you can purchase excellent polyester tents for not alot of cash. 

Polyester does suffer in terms of breathability, unless it is woven into a Gore-Tex type technical fabric, although this is uncommon for tents as the cost would be prohibitive. 

There is also the question of longevity – polyester tents are known to suffer from extended exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. The sunlight can start degrading the bonds between the polymers, causing discolouration and in some cases weakening and tearing. Cotton does not suffer the same degradation and can last a lifetime if properly looked after.

Is Polycotton the best of both worlds?

Mixing polyester and cotton into the same tent is therefore an attempt at combining the best properties of each material. But does it work?

The answer in our opinion is yes. We have tried several polycotton tents directly against their polyester equivalents (for example the Vango Keswick 2 Polycotton vs the standard Keswick), and although they weigh more and take up slightly more space when packed, the overall feel and usability of polycotton is far superior against pure polyester.

The polycotton material feels more alive! There’s no easy way to put this into words, but it feels at once more homely, warm and inviting. We have been very impressed with polycotton and believe it is worth the extra expense, especially if you are camping in the colder months or in extreme summer heat.

What does TC mean for tents?

This acronym had us confused for a while when we saw it used to label polycotton tents. It actually stands for “Technical Cotton” and is essentially a synonym for polycotton. The two terms can be used interchangeably.

How to Waterproof Polycotton?

As mentioned above, polyester tents are typically coated in a waterproof chemical which stops water soaking through. The seams of the tent are also sealed with tape to avoid water ingress via that route.

Polycotton tents also normally have the waterproof coating applied, but do not have the taped seams. This means that there can be a gap between the thread used to stitch the seam together and the hole in the tent made by the needle – a possible route for water ingress!

Weathering your Polycotton tent

To stop the seams letting water in, you need to ‘weather’ your polycotton tent. This is quite a simple process, and can actually normally be done at the campsite on your first use of the tent. Alternatively you can do it at home in the garden before your inaugural trip.

  • Pitch the tent
  • Wet the tent thoroughly either by rainwater or via a hosepipe spray for around 10-15 mintes
  • Let the tent dry out thoroughly. This allows the thread to expand in the seams and to fill the stitch hole, stopping the water ingress route for your next camping trip.
  • Pack the tent away

How to Clean Polycotton Tents

Grangers Fabsil Tent care kitPolycotton is easy to clean, and can normally be accomplished at the campsite.

  • Scrape off any dirt with an old credit card or a brush
  • Wash a cleaning liquid such as Grangers over the surface of the tent. This should remove most of the stains. However you can use additional bleach if required for the most stubborn stains.
  • Rinse thoroughly with clean water
  • Allow to dry
  • Waterproof the fabric with waterproof spray

In summary, polycotton is an excellent compromise between the low bulk and weight of polyester and the enhanced breathability and feel of cotton. We recommend that if you are looking to purchase a new tent that you at least go to a store and stand in a polycotton tent to understand the reasons why we feel it is worth the extra expenditure. The quality on offer is undeniable and we believe they will last much longer than the equivalent polyester tent.

Marcy Marc
Marcy Marc

As a camping expert and enthusiast, I'm always up for a challenge. Whether it is setting up the perfect tent or exploring new trails on my bike, I'm here to help you make the most of your outdoor camping adventures. #campingexpert #outdooradventurer #bikelove

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