The material that makes up the gear you use on camping trips will go a long way towards determining the successes (or the frustrations) of your time in the wilderness.
While some types of materials aren’t very debatable (such as wool for socks), others have created a lot of arguments about which you should use in particular situations.
Two of the most popular materials, nylon and polyester, are used in everything from clothing to different types of tents, and both come with advantages and disadvantages.
What We Look For In The Comparison
Both nylon and polyester are synthetic materials made from petroleum residue rather than naturally-occurring fabric (e.g. cotton).
Polyester is slightly more popular than nylon as a global good, but both account for the majority of synthetic cloth.
Unlike cotton or wool, both nylon and polyester can be engineered to different thicknesses, making it practical for some materials that need to be very thick (tent canvas) and others that can get away with being lighter (windbreakers).
Sometimes gear is valuable because its supplies are limited, but that’s not the case here.
Both nylon and polyester can be found in sports-goods stores across the country; there’s no advantage to picking one over the other based on availability. Instead, we ranked them on several different attributes:
- Tensile strength
- UV protection
Both nylon and polyester are better than simple canvas or organic fibers in terms of their strength.
In fact, one of the reasons that the thickest synthetic fabrics were manufactured in the first place was to provide bullet-resistant protection! The ballistic nylon, originally invented by DuPont company for use in the WW2, was made out of 1050 denier yarn in a 2×2 basket ware. Nowadays, anything above 600D, including polyester, is considered heavy-duty fabric.
Although neither nylon nor polyester can fully protect you from bullets, both are capable of taking on a lot of pressure and maintaining their form and durability.
On a one-to-one scale, nylon has a higher tensile strength (meaning it can take more pressure before rupturing than polyester.
Case closed? Not quite: with strength comes weight, and while the extra weight might not be important, it does add up.
However, at a first value, we give this one to nylon simply because it can bear more weight, more pressure, or more stress than its counterpart.
Anyone who has dashed into their tent to escape a sudden rainstorm knows that waterproof gear is worth its weight in gold once you get out into nature.
The success rate of waterproofing material is quite easy to measure because it’s simply the quantity of water that seeps through relative to the contrasting material.
Polyester has several advantages here: it is more hydrophobic than nylon, meaning that it does a better job of repelling water rather than absorbing water — excellent for, say, a sleeping bag since nobody wants to go to sleep in a damp bag.
Nylon will “feel” wetter than polyester, and will likely also feel colder.
In terms of true waterproofing, however, the answer usually depends on the weave of either nylon or polyester, because the weave contains the holes that water will pass through; even a weave of solid steel isn’t truly waterproof because it can seep through these openings.
Even so, it’s quite hard to find a nylon weave that is significantly tighter than a polyester weave of similar thickness.
This means that since nylon will absorb about twice as much water as polyester, polyester is a more valuable material in terms of waterproofing, and much more valuable if you intend to go camping in a place with a lot of rain, snow, or other precipitation.
You may want a waterproof material if you’re camping in a lot of rain, but if the weather report is cloudless and sunny, your priorities might shift to protecting yourself from the sun — especially at altitude, where you get sunburnt faster.
Nylon absorbs more UV energy than polyester, meaning that it can heat up faster.
On a cold camping trip, that might be valuable (although nylon still takes longer to dry out because it absorbs water more steadily), but on a summertime trip, you may prefer polyester.
Since polyester does a better job repelling UV energy, you’ll feel much cooler wearing polyester clothing or hanging out inside a polyester tent.
Since nylon absorbs more UV energy, furthermore, it also fades colors more quickly than polyester, meaning that if you like a particular color scheme, it may not last as long as you’d like before it starts to lose its pop.
One of the major questions that any outdoor enthusiast needs to ask about their gear is how long it will remain in good functional order.
After all, nothing lasts forever, but the best-quality gear will last many years before you need to think about replacing it.
It should be noted that both nylon and polyester are quite good at resisting damage: they have a high abrasion threshold, so contact with dirt or rocks or even some sharp objects won’t necessarily result in them breaking down.
Both nylon and polyester are considered military-grade, so what’s good enough for soldiers in the field may well be good enough for you in the backcountry.
The good news about both nylon and polyester durability is that both have been rigorously tested.
In fact, both test so well that there’s little performance difference between the two fabrics over a test duration of tens of thousands of cycles, and both can last for years when properly stored and cleaned.
Polyester does come out ahead by a thin margin because it has the higher tensile strength, and you would expect the polyester fabric to be able to last longer than nylon fabric of the same size and thickness.
A rock is durable and waterproof, but you wouldn’t want to use it as a pair of gloves.
Flexibility is key for many aspects of outdoor gear, and a material that can bend without breaking is hugely valuable for those looking to conquer the elements.
While there’s debate in other aspects of these two materials, there’s much less debate here: nylon is simply more flexible overall and can be bent or folded into contours that polyester simply can’t match.
While polyester is quite rugged and waterproof, it has less ability overall to bend and change shape.
Which Material To Use?
As in many aspects of life, the best material for the job depends on the job.
Nylon is beneficial for some types of clothing like gloves and socks, which need to be able to move a lot and take a bit of abuse.
Polyester is beneficial for tents, sleeping bags, and winter clothing. It may be slightly less comfortable but will be able to better resist water or repel sunlight in sub-optimal conditions.