Hiking and backpacking gear contains a range of technical fabrics. But two of the most common are polyester and nylon. Both offer useful properties for outdoor equipment and clothing. However, there are some key differences between polyester and nylon to consider when selecting gear for hiking and backpacking adventures.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll compare polyester vs nylon fabric for hiking and explore the advantages and disadvantages of each. Let’s dive in!
Table of Contents
- Introduction to Polyester and Nylon
- Key Characteristics and Properties
- Polyester Fabric Qualities
- Nylon Fabric Qualities
- Polyester vs Nylon for Specific Hiking Items
- Hiking Clothing and Gear Fabrics Compared
- Caring for Polyester and Nylon Gear
- Conclusion: Which is Better for Hiking?
Introduction to Polyester and Nylon
First, let’s quickly introduce these two synthetic fabrics:
What is Polyester?
Polyester is made from petroleum and other chemicals that are spun into a fabric. It was first mass-produced in the 1950s and soon became widely used in clothing and other applications.
Polyester has high tensile strength and is quite resistant to stretching. It is hydrophobic, quick-drying, and lightweight. Polyester is used in everything from clothing and sleeping bags to rope and tarps.
Common brand names for polyester outdoor gear include Polartec, Primaloft, and Thinsulate.
What is Nylon?
Nylon is another synthetic fabric that was first introduced in the 1930s. It is made from petroleum-based compounds that create strong yet lightweight fibers.
Nylon has high abrasion resistance and durability. It also has low absorbency and quick-drying properties. You’ll find nylon used in backpacks, tents, jackets, and other outdoor gear where strength and weather resistance are priorities.
Popular brand name nylon fabrics include Cordura and ripstop nylon. Ripstop weaves help resist tearing.
Now let’s dig into the characteristics and properties of each in more detail.
Key Characteristics and Properties
Polyester and nylon share some similarities, but also have distinct differences that impact their performance for hiking and backpacking equipment.
Here is an overview comparison of some of their key characteristics:
|Melts instead of burns
|Prone to static
As you can see, polyester and nylon are both strong, hydrophobic, quick-drying, and resistant to mildew – making them very suitable for outdoor gear.
But nylon has even higher tenacity and abrasion resistance, making it the toughest of the two. Meanwhile, polyester is more UV resistant and less prone to static buildup.
Next, let’s look closer at the advantages and drawbacks of each fabric.
Polyester Fabric Qualities
Polyester has progressed over the decades into an excellent fabric for hiking gear. Here are some of its best qualities:
Strength – Polyester fibers are highly resilient with good resistance to stretching and distortion. This makes polyester hiking gear last longer.
Quick-Drying – With low absorbency, polyester fabric and clothing dry very fast. This helps reduce chafing as well as speed drying when wet.
Packability – Items like polyester jackets compress down small, which is useful for packing.
UV Resistance – Polyester holds up very well against sun exposure and ultraviolet radiation damage.
Insulation – Polyester fibers trap air well for warmth. This makes it great insulation material for jackets and sleeping bags.
Affordability – Polyester clothing and gear is relatively inexpensive compared to other technical fabrics.
Comfort – Modern polyester clothing often incorporates stretchy spandex blends for better comfort and freedom of movement.
Versatility – The range of polyester fabric weights and weaves make it versatile for all kinds of hiking items and conditions.
Polyester isn’t without some disadvantages, however:
Odor Retention – Polyester is prone to building up odors from sweat and extended use.
Static – Static cling can be an annoyance with polyester clothing.
Not Biodegradable – Like other synthetics, polyester will remain in landfills indefinitely.
Heat Retention – The same insulation that traps warmth also reduces breathability and moisture wicking.
Not Absorbent – Polyester doesn’t absorb water well, which can lead to wet clothing sticking to your skin.
Overall, the benefits of strength, fast-drying, UV resistance and insulation make polyester a valuable fabric for hikers.
Nylon Fabric Qualities
Nylon shares some similarities to polyester but also has its own advantages that make it so popular for hiking gear and apparel:
Durability – With excellent tensile strength and abrasion resistance, nylon is extremely tough and lasts a long time.
Water Resistance – Nylon has hydrophobic properties that cause water to bead up rather than soak in. This is useful for rainwear and tents.
Wind Resistance – Dense nylon weaves block wind penetration well, ideal for outerwear and shells.
Packability – Like polyester, nylon can be compressed down very small, great for packing.
Breathability – Nylon allows more airflow and breathability than polyester, wicking away sweat.
Stretch – Nylon has more natural stretch and flex than polyester, offering freedom of movement.
UV Resistance – Nylon has fair UV resistance, though less than polyester.
Nylon’s few disadvantages:
Absorbency – While low, nylon is slightly more absorbent than polyester.
Prone to Mildew – Extended moisture can cause mildew growth on nylon.
Heat Sensitivity – Nylon fibers lose strength when exposed to high heat.
The extremely high strength and abrasion resistance of nylon make it the top choice where durability is key – backpacks, hiking pants, tents, etc. It strikes a nice balance of stretch, breathability, and water resistance as well.
Now that we’ve covered their general properties, let’s see how polyester and nylon compare in specific hiking clothing and gear.
Polyester vs Nylon for Hiking Items
How do these two fabrics compare when used to make specific items for hiking and backpacking? Here is a breakdown:
Hiking Shirts and Base Layers
Polyester – Very popular thanks to moisture wicking properties. Often blended with spandex for stretch and comfort. Makes lightweight, quick-drying base layer shirts.
Nylon – Not very common. Limited breathability and stretch hampers comfort. Sometimes blended into shirt fabric for added durability.
Winner – Polyester thanks to superior next-to-skin moisture management.
Hiking Pants and Shorts
Polyester – Used in hiking pants but can be noisy and lack stretch. Often blended with spandex for improved stretch and motion.
Nylon – More popular thanks to greater strength and abrasion resistance. Added stretch and soft fabric improve comfort.
Winner – Nylon because it better resists tears but can incorporate stretch for movement.
Polyester – Frequently blended with other fibers like spandex for lightweight, moisture-wicking hiking socks.
Nylon – Added to socks to reinforce heels and toes for blister prevention and durability.
Winner – Tie. A polyester/nylon blend maximizes wicking, stretch, and reinforcement.
Polyester – The predominant insulating fiber thanks to high loft and heat retention. Used in puffy jackets, vests, hoodies.
Nylon – Often used as a durable face fabric paired with polyester insulation. Provides wind and abrasion protection.
Winner – Polyester for insulation, nylon for shell fabric.
Rain Jackets and Ponchos
Polyester – Coated polyester can be waterproof but isn’t as durable long term. Prone to wetting out.
Nylon – Tough waterproof and breathable coated nylon is the fabric of choice. Withstands years of wet conditions.
Winner – Nylon thanks to unbeatable waterproofness and abrasion resistance.
Backpacks and Bags
Polyester – Occasionally used alone or as a budget fabric. Prone to abrasion damage and tearing.
Nylon – The dominant backpack and bag fabric. Very durable with abrasion resistance. Used in lightweight ripstop and heavier duty Cordura.
Winner – Nylon by a longshot for rugged packs and bags.
Polyester – Sometimes used in tent canopy fabric for reduced cost. Not very durable or water resistant.
Nylon – The preferred tent fabric because of its strength, weather resistance, and light weight.
Winner – Nylon is far better suited for weather protection and durability.
Polyester – Excels as insulation fill because it’s lightweight, compressible, and traps heat efficiently.
Nylon – Used as exterior shell fabric on bags thanks to strength and water repellency.
Winner – Polyester fill paired with a nylon shell is the ideal combo.
Ropes and Cordage
Polyester – Sometimes blended with nylon for rope thanks to strength and stretch resistance.
Nylon – The dominant rope material due to tremendous tensile strength, knotability, and abrasion resistance.
Winner – Nylon is far superior for any rope applications.
As the comparisons above demonstrate, each material has attributes that make it preferred for certain hiking items and uses. Overall nylon edges out polyester in technical performance, while polyester wins for insulation.
Next let’s compare fabric weights and weaves.
Hiking Fabric Weights and Weaves Compared
Fabric weight and construction also impact characteristics. Let’s see how polyester and nylon hiking gear fabrics differ.
- Used in liners, base layers, and warm weather clothing
- Polyester woven is soft, breathable, and moisture wicking
- Nylon woven offers high breathability with wind resistance
- Used in shirts, pants, and cool weather layers
- Polyester provides insulation and dries quickly
- Nylon is abrasion-resistant but less breathable
- Used in jackets and outerwear for extreme weather
- Polyester traps heat while blocking wind and moisture
- Nylon is highly waterproof and windproof but less flexible
- Tightly woven with reinforcement fibers
- Polyester ripstop is very tear resistant but less durable
- Nylon ripstop has exceptional tear and abrasion resistance
- Lightly insulated, stretchy, and breathable
- Polyester softshells retain some heat while allowing airflow
- Nylon softshells excel at wind and abrasion resistance
The weights and weaves that work best depend on the specific use and desired characteristics in each garment or piece of gear. And many items combine both polyester and nylon to maximize strengths and minimize weaknesses of each fabric.
Caring for Polyester vs Nylon Hiking Gear
To get the longest life from hiking gear, proper care is essential. Here are some care tips for polyester and nylon:
- Turn garments inside out and use a gentle, scent-free detergent.
- Wash in cool water on a gentle cycle. Warm water can damage fabrics.
- Consider a wash designed for technical fabrics.
- Tumble dry on low. High heat weakens fibers over time.
- Or drip dry on a line or rack away from direct sunlight.
- Stuff down jackets and sleeping bags before fully dry.
- Keep gear away from high heat sources.
- Check items regularly for abrasion wear and damage.
- Don’t overstuff packs and bags which stresses seams.
- Apply a durable water repellent (DWR) treatment occasionally.
- This helps rainwear and tents “bead up” moisture again.
- Wash item first, then apply DWR spray and tumble dry.
With proper care, both polyester and nylon hiking gear can deliver reliable performance, trip after trip.
Conclusion: Which is Better for Hiking Overall?
After comparing polyester and nylon fabrics in depth, which comes out as the better choice overall for hiking and backpacking gear?
The answer isn’t definitive, as each material has attributes that make it preferred for certain uses.
However, if we tally up the scores above in key categories:
- Nylon wins for durability, water resistance, packability, UV resistance.
- Polyester wins for insulation, drying speed, comfort, affordability.
Based on these comparisons, nylon has a slight edge for technical properties crucial in much hiking gear and clothing. It excels in outerwear and packs where toughness is paramount.
That said, polyester is unbeatable as an insulating fill material thanks to its superior ability to trap heat. And its comfort and quick-dry abilities make it a popular base layer fabric.
For the best performance, many hiking items incorporate both. Polyester insulation inside a durable nylon shell is a common combo in jackets and sleeping bags.
Blending a small amount of nylon into polyester clothing adds reinforcement in high-wear areas. Adding some spandex creates stretch for freedom of movement and comfort over long miles.
At the end of the day, experienced hikers select gear based on its design, construction, features and intended use, regardless of whether nylon or polyester is utilized. Knowledge of each fabric’s strengths aids in making informed decisions when purchasing gear.
With good gear choices and proper care, both polyester and nylon can keep you comfortable, safe and dry over thousands of miles in the backcountry.