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There are a surprisingly high number of hiking pack materials!
It can be overwhelming if you are buying one for the first time or replacing your trusty pack that has seen one too many repairs.
This guide will provide you with the most common backpack materials out there and a quick rundown of their pros and cons. Giving you the confidence that your pack will see many, many adventures!
What is the most popular fabric for backpacks?
There are a lot of options of material for backpacks on the market nowadays, some are very popular, and some are rather rare.
The common materials you will see used as the main material in hiking packs are:
- Robic Nylon
Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE)
Strong, durable, and mostly abrasion resistant
Versatile; many thicknesses on the market
Not very breathable
Vulnerable to degradation with long sun exposure
More susceptible to staining than other materials
Nylon is a synthetic material made from plastics that are manufactured into fibers and it is used in a wide range of products. It is considered a thermoplastic material as it becomes pliable and moldable at high heats while maintaining its shape when cooled.
It is one of the most popular fabrics for backpacks. You can easily find nylon backpacks that fit your priorities, whether it be durability or light weight.
It is not common to find normal nylon packs; they are usually a variation of standard nylon (robic or ripstop), or the nylon has been treated/coated for increased water resistance.
More tear resistant than standard nylon
Adds negligible weight
Same as regular nylon
The difference with ripstop nylon is that it has additional threads that are woven into the fabric (often in a visible grid pattern) that reinforce the material.
Ripstop does not stop the material from being cut or damaged or anything (that would be quite amazing!), rather, it makes it harder for a simple nick or tear in the fabric to turn into a big hole.
This makes it an excellent backpack material for those who often find themselves in overgrown areas or places where the pack might get snagged and torn on something.
More tear and abrasion resistant than regular nylon
Lighter weight than regular nylon
Same as regular nylon
A little more expensive than regular nylon
Robic nylon refers to a type of nylon that is manufactured to be stronger and more durable than regular nylon.
You will also find “high tenacity nylon,” which is a more general term (it can vary from brand to brand as to how much stronger it is than normal nylon), but high tenacity nylon is a stronger and more durable nylon. It can be stronger than robic, but it depends on the brand and quality of the nylon.
Cheaper and lighter than nylon
More UV resistant than nylon
Does not absorb water (dries out quickly when wet)
Not a strong or durable material
Is not as flexible or stretchy as nylon
Polyester, along with nylon, is one of the most common fabrics used for hiking packs. It’s cheap to make and dries out quickly when it gets wet.
If you live in an area where it frequently rains or you anticipate using your pack near a lake or beach, it would be worthwhile looking into a polyester pack.
Also, since it is more UV resistant than nylon, polyester retains its color better than nylon. If bright colors and fashion statements are your thing, it is worth considering!
Heavier than more modern materials
Retains water when it gets wet
Canvas was traditionally made from natural (hemp, linen, cotton) materials, but many modern versions include synthetic materials. Cotton canvas bags are the more easily found of the fully natural canvases.
When it comes to getting a canvas pack for hiking, unless you are drawn to the aesthetic of them (or you’re a WWI reenactor), there is not a good reason to get a canvas pack.
Modern synthetic materials are lighter, cheaper, and usually stronger and more durable.
If you do want a canvas pack, make sure you get one that is coated/waxed, as it will ensure it is more water resistant.
Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE)
Naturally waterproof (high water resistance)
Durable and strong
UHMWPE is a synthetic material that is known for its durability, being lightweight, and being highly water resistant.
It is most common for backpacking packs and different proprietary variations. (Dyneema or DCF being the most known in the outdoor backpacks market)
Packs made with the material are quite expensive but do provide a long-lasting, waterproof, and lightweight hiking backpack.
What about the thickness of the backpack materials?
Denier (D) is the most relevant and common metric of material thickness you will see. (you may see metrics like thread count or grams per square meter, but they are less common)
The technical measurement of Denier is rather obscure. (it is the weight, in grams, or 9 kilometers of the fiber)
In practice, it is a very useful metric for the thickness of a fabric.
Most packs fall into the 200-600 D range, though this can be lower on UHMWPE fabrics as they are designed to be incredibly strong.
The higher the number, the thicker the fabric. Though, you do have to be careful when comparing the Denier of different fabrics. For example, 400D of nylon is not equivalent to 400D of other fabrics in terms of strength.
Which backpack material is right for you?
There are a couple of factors to consider when deciding which backpack material makes the most sense for you.
Factors to consider
If you’re planning to use this as a hiking pack and work or gym bag, you will want to consider a more durable material. The durability and affordable nature of nylon backpacks makes a lot of sense in this scenario.
If you are constantly hiking in wet/rainy conditions, something like polyester may make more sense.
Consider how you see yourself using the pack and the conditions in which you will be hiking in before making your choice.
Inevitably, for most, price is going to play a major factor.
If you are just getting started, it likely does not make sense to drop $200 on a daypack.
A nylon or polyester bag probably should be near the top of your list. You can find packs of either material for under $60.
Durability goes hand in hand with usage.
If you want a pack that is super durable and has a higher abrasion resistance, a robic or rip stop nylon pack is worth looking into. (though if your backpack falls into a briar patch, you may need a new pack regardless of the material)
What about water resistant materials or waterproofing?
You have two main ways of increasing the water resistance of your pack or “waterproofing” it.
TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) is a moldable plastic that is applied as a layer on the outside or inside (or both) of a backpack. This coating essentially creates a waterproof layer on top of your pack.
PU (polyurethane) is a similar material, it is just not thermoplastic, so it is not moldable at high temperatures. A polyurethane coating of your pack works the same as the TPU.
DWR (durable water repellant) is the finish found on most rain gear.
It breaks down over time and loses its effectiveness. Luckily you can reapply a new layer or add an original layer to your pack.
There are options for spray-on or wash-in applications.
If your pack doesn’t have a TPU or PU coating and you don’t want to add/re-apply DWR, you can always use a pack cover or poncho to cover your pack.
What pack material is the most durable?
It can be a tricky question because there are various thicknesses of each material, and different manufacturers use slightly different quality of fabrics and different weaves.
Generally, I would say UHMWPE and robic nylon are the most durable. They are both strong and quite abrasion resistant.
What pack material is the cheapest? Most expensive?
It is a toss-up between polyester and nylon. These days the prices of either pack material is quite low, and you can find a lot of options at a low price.
UHMWPE, for sure. Backpacking packs made of this stuff are generally $300-400+
There are probably more hiking backpack materials than you thought, and some are similar, while others are vastly different fabrics.
Which material is right for you is somewhat a matter of personal preference and a factor of your usage and price range.
The best backpack for you is out there, but don’t let indecision on picking it out stop you from getting outside!