Selecting the proper material to form the fabric of your tent, which is essentially the entirety of the tent without the frame, is ultimately an exercise in compromise. Ideally you’d want a tough but flexible material that is resistant to all forms of weather and temperature changes, keeps out both the raging sun and the driving rain but still highly breathable, and compressible and light for easy transport. You might as well throw in bulletproof and capable of repelling large animals, as well, since no one tent material will be able to provide most or all of these qualities in equal amounts. The choice of what material to use depends on what aspect you decide to prioritize, and the trade-offs that you are willing to make to achieve those priorities.
The materials discussed below do not take into account special coating or treatment for various concerns except as otherwise discussed, such as with waterproofing, which is standard for many artificial tent fabrics.
Advocates of nylon tent fabrics praise the material’s strength and durability, as nylon is capable of enduring the punishment that rugged terrain, or clumsy handling, can dish out. The toughness of nylon translates into the tent sheets being thinner, and thus lighter and simpler to carry around. The downsides of nylon, however, according to tentmakers, are that they are normally UV-transparent unless specially treated, which can lead to a bad sunburn even from inside the tent on a clear day; nylon is sensitive to and expands or contracts when the temperature changes significantly, which can warp an otherwise stable design; and lastly, nylon is not particularly breathable, due to a urethane coating that is typically used on nylon pack cloth to make it moisture-proof.
Polyester is also a popular choice of tent fabric that shares many of the same qualities as nylon, but it is even more resistant to wear and tear, not being susceptible to stretching, and can last for many years without any dips in performance. It may need to be specially coated to be water repellent if used for tent roofing.
On a hot day, it’s hard to beat a cotton canvas tent for keeping you cool. The material breathes very well, and the natural color of the canvas fabric reflects sunlight effectively. Canvas is also easy to fix, being crafted with sturdy weaves that can be patched up without much hassle. This material’s main disadvantage is its bulk and weight, particularly if the tent gets wet, as the fabric is more susceptible to moisture retention. Also, while a weathered canvas tent can keep out low levels of precipitation, it won’t be very effective against extreme rain and snow, and is bound to get much heavier due to the moisture that has seeped in.
Generally not recommended unless you plan to camp in the middle of a war zone or in an area known for dangerous wildlife, if such tents are even in mainstream circulation. Supposedly, some tents do come with a Kevlar outer layer to protect against aggressive wildlife, but the heaviness of the material makes it ill-suited for tent construction.