Backpack Fabrics: Understanding Nylon, Canvas, DCF & More

Four types of backpack material: Dyneema, Gridtstop, Leather, and Cotton Canvas side by side
Backpack Fabrics: Understanding the Popular Materials

Today, we’ll take a deep dive into the different backpack fabrics and materials that make up modern-day bags.

We’ll start by looking at the most popular synthetic fabrics on the market: nylon (Ripstop, Ballistic, Cordura, and Robic), polyester, neoprene, Dyneema/DCF, ULTRA, X-Pac, and ECOPAK.

After that, we’ll look at tried-and-true traditional fabrics, like cotton canvas and leather, that have served travelers, explorers, soldiers, and students for centuries.

But first, let’s review everything you should look for in a top-notch backpack:

  • Quality materials and construction — the walls of your on-the-road home
  • Protection — weatherproof and/or shock resistant, for keeping clothes dry and electronics padded
  • Comfort — padded & adjustable straps and ventilated & ergonomic back panels
  • Thoughtful design — works the way you need it to while also expressing style and function
  • Spacious & organized — pockets inside & out, sized properly & located where you need them

As you may imagine, fabrics play a big role in each of these essential areas. Let’s dive in.

Modern Backpack Fabrics

Nylon — Cordura, Robic, Ripstop, and Ballistic

Nylon was introduced in the 1930s and quickly gained popularity due to its durability, light weight, and water resistance. Cordura and Robic are two specific types of high-tenacity nylon fabrics often used to make travel backpacks.

Cordura nylon, developed in the late 1960s, is known for its exceptional abrasion resistance and durability, making it ideal for high-stress areas of a backpack, such as the base and shoulder straps. Robic nylon is a strong, lightweight fabric often used in ultralight backpacks, where ‘less (weight) is always more.’

Ripstop nylon uses a specific weave as a reinforcing technique to prevent small tears from spreading. The distinctive grid appearance is due to thick threads alternating with lighter gauge threads. Gridstop is a version of ripstop weaving that uses thick, ultra-strong Dyneema thread in the grid pattern.

Ballistic nylon is another specific weave that maximizes tear resistance in all directions. Developed in WWII to protect soldiers from cuts and shrapnel, it uses a very high-denier nylon thread, usually 1000 denier or higher.

Polyester

Polyester is less durable but cheaper than nylon, so it’s primarily found in children’s backpacks. In higher-end packs, it’s generally limited to pockets and linings. But when used strategically, it helps balance cost, durability, and functionality.

Dyneema/DCF

Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is a high-performance fabric made from ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE) fibers laminated between layers of Mylar or polyester.

In the 2000s, Dyneema became popular with the ultralight backpacking community due to its unmatched strength-to-weight ratio, waterproofness, and durability. DCF is often used in the body, pockets, and reinforcement areas of ultralight gear, where minimal weight is essential.

On its own, UHMWPE fibers can slowly lose their shape, but bonding the fibers to a thin backing film stabilizes the shape and makes the fabric more durable and versatile. Visit Avient’s Dyneema website for technical info.

ULTRA, ECOPAK, and X-Pac

ULTRA was developed by Challenge Outdoor as an advanced sailcloth material. With its excellent strength-to-weight ratio, abrasion resistance, and waterproof properties, it’s also ideal for minimalist backpacks where it’s found in sidewalls, pockets, and reinforcement areas.

ECOPAK offers similar benefits to ULTRA but is made from 100% recycled materials. Each yard of fabric consists of around 20 upcycled plastic water bottles. This one’s for the environmentalists among us.

ULTRA TX is essentially a cross between ULTRA and ECOPAK, combining the Ultraweave fabric with ECOPAK’s polyester backing fabric. This makes it heavier but more durable. It comes in 100, 200, 400, and 800 denier weights.

X-Pac is a laminate from Dimension Polyant that uses multiple layers of nylon, polyester, and Dyneema fibers. It’s an advanced newcomer found in popular offerings from Tortuga, Tom Bihn, Mission Workshop, Gossamer Gear, and others.

Neoprene

Neoprene is a synthetic rubber material known for its flexibility, insulation, and water resistance. It’s used in totally submersible backpacks or as cushioning in regular backpacks for laptop sleeves, bottle holders, and padding for shoulder straps and back panels.

Traditional Backpack Fabrics

Cotton/Canvas

Cotton canvas bags go back thousands of years and are affordable, versatile, and relatively durable. These packs aren’t typically waterproof, except when the cotton is treated with wax or polymers. Nonetheless, heavyweight canvas backpacks are popular as rugged bushcraft packs.

Leather

Leather backpacks are more durable and heavier than cotton. Leather develops a rich patina over time, making it a stylish choice. But you won’t see many all-leather packs on the trail; its inherent weight usually limits it to decorative trim or high-stress uses such as tie-downs for cargo straps.

Cost vs. Performance

The cost of backpack fabrics can vary significantly. Dyneema Composite Fabric (DCF) is generally the most expensive option due to its exceptional strength-to-weight ratio and waterproof properties.

Robic, X-Pac, and Gridstop fabrics are typically mid-range in terms of cost and strike a good balance between durability, weight, and water resistance. Nylon and polyester fabrics, such as ripstop and 210D nylon, are usually the most affordable options.

Savvy manufacturers will use expensive materials in high-stress areas while using more affordable fabrics in less critical areas. For example, a backpack might use DCF for the shell while using less expensive nylon or polyester for the pockets, shoulder straps, and hip belts (often padded with neoprene).

Fabric Glossary

High-tenacity: An umbrella term for fabrics that possess exceptional strength, durability, and breaking resistance. High-tenacity yarns usually consist of long polymer molecular chains, contributing to their elasticity, flexibility, and ability to maintain their shape under stress.

Weight: The weight of a fabric measured in ounces per square yard (oz/yd²) or grams per square meter (g/m²). Lighter fabrics like DCF help keep minimally loaded ultralight backpacks as light as possible.

Tensile strength: The maximum amount of force a fabric can withstand before breaking, indicating its ability to handle weight and overall durability.

Abrasion resistance: A “scuff test” that measures how long a fabric can be rubbed by standardized abrasives using specific pressures before the fabric shows signs of wear.

Denier: The weight of a length of thread or yarn. The higher the weight, the stronger the thread (all other things being equal).

Elasticity: Elasticity, or stretch, is the percentage of its resting length that a fabric can withstand before breaking. This reflects its ability to maintain its shape and return to its original form.

Waterproofness: A fabric’s hydrostatic head rating measures how tall a column of water (expressed in mm) needs to be to force water through the fabric. For example, a hydrostatic head rating of 5,000 mm could hold back a column of water five meters high. The higher the hydrostatic head value, the more waterproof the fabric.

Breathability: The fabric’s ability to allow air to pass through it. In backpacks, mesh panels or breathable fabrics with spacers or air channels can minimize “sweaty back syndrome.” Unfortunately, the more breathable a fabric, the less waterproof it is, so combining fabrics and air circulation design features is the key to success.

Final Thoughts: Backpack Fabrics & Materials

Thanks for stopping by to learn about the materials and fabrics that make up our trusty backpacks and help haul our precious belongings from Point A to Point B.

We’ve examined the specifics of modern synthetic materials like nylon (Ripstop, Ballistic, Cordura, and Robic), polyester, neoprene, Dyneema/DCF, ULTRA, X-Pac, and ECOPAK.

We’ve also analyzed traditional tried-and-true materials like cotton canvas and leather, which have served dutifully for hundreds of years and counting.

After reading through, we hope you learned a thing or two about the materials used in modern-day backpacks. If we missed anything when compiling our list, please get in touch with us or leave a comment below.

Last Updated on March 31, 2024

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Noel Krasomil

Hey, I'm Noel Krasomil, the founder of The Packable Life. I pack light and explore the globe searching for awe-inspiring hiking trails, rich cultural experiences, and ways to continue traveling indefinitely.

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