When you pick a backpack, you’re also choosing the fabric it’s made of. This fabric decides how long your backpack will last, how it looks, and how it behaves in different weathers. Let’s explore the most popular materials for backpacks and find out which one might be the best for you.
First thing’s first, there are a lot of different terms that you will run into if you’re looking into making your own backpack or thinking more seriously about purchasing one of your own. Let’s start out with a brief overview of the different spec’s you’ll generally find when discussing the finer parts of backpacks…
Thread Count: This refers to the number of threads per square inch of fabric and can affect the texture, strength, and durability. Higher thread counts can result in a smoother and more tightly woven fabric.
Coating: Fabrics may be coated with materials like polyurethane (PU), silicone, or Teflon to enhance water resistance, durability, and to provide additional protection against the elements.
DWR Finish (Durable Water Repellent): A DWR finish is applied to fabric to make it water-resistant. It causes water to bead up and roll off the surface, rather than soaking through.
Breathability: The ability of a fabric to allow moisture vapor to be transmitted through the material. Breathability is crucial for preventing condensation and sweat buildup inside the backpack.
Tensile Strength: This measures the fabric’s resistance to being pulled apart under tension. It’s an important spec for backpacks that will carry heavy loads or be used in demanding conditions.
Abrasion Resistance: The ability of a fabric to withstand wear and rubbing. This is particularly important for areas of a backpack that come into frequent contact with other surfaces.
UV Resistance: Some fabrics are treated or have inherent properties that allow them to resist degradation from ultraviolet light exposure.
Stretch: Certain backpack fabrics are designed with a degree of stretch to accommodate loads and provide a snug fit for various items.
Pilling Resistance: This spec indicates how well the fabric can resist forming small balls of fiber on the surface after repeated use or friction.
Weight: The weight of the fabric (often measured in ounces per square yard) can impact the overall weight of the backpack and the user’s comfort.
Yarn Type: The type of yarn used in the fabric, such as multifilament or monofilament, can affect the fabric’s feel, strength, and appearance.
Finish: Apart from DWR, fabrics can have antimicrobial, anti-odor, or fire-retardant finishes, depending on the intended use of the backpack.
Insulation: Some backpacks may have insulated fabric specs to help maintain temperature, either to keep things warm or cool, which is common in hydration packs or camera bags.
Eco-Friendly Materials: Specs may also include the use of recycled materials or fabrics that are produced using environmentally friendly processes.
Lamination: Layers of fabric may be laminated together to achieve a combination of properties, such as adding a waterproof membrane to a breathable fabric.
Alright, now lets get into the meat and potatoes – the fabrics!
Nylon – The Go-To Fabric
Nylon backpacks are the quintessential companions for a range of activities, revered for their versatility and durability. The adaptability of nylon allows it to be crafted into various textures and strengths, making it an ideal fabric for backpacks used in diverse environments. Ballistic nylon, with its origins in military gear, provides exceptional tear resistance, making it suitable for rugged use. Meanwhile, Cordura nylon is celebrated for its distinctive textured feel and enhanced durability, often chosen for high-end backpacks designed to withstand the rigors of daily use.
However, nylon does have its down sides; prolonged exposure to UV radiation can degrade the material over time, and its synthetic nature raises environmental concerns due to its non-biodegradable properties. Despite this, the practical benefits of nylon — including its resistance to water and its ability to retain shape after being stretched or compressed — make it a popular choice for backpacks. The material’s quick-drying characteristics are particularly beneficial for those on the move, ensuring that a brief encounter with rain doesn’t result in a long-lasting dampness.
From an environmental standpoint, the production of nylon is not without impact, as it is a petroleum-based product. This has prompted manufacturers and consumers alike to consider the ecological footprint of their gear. In response, there is a growing trend towards the use of recycled nylons and more sustainable manufacturing processes. The balance of nylon’s practical benefits with its environmental implications is a consideration for the conscious consumer, who must weigh the advantages of durability and functionality against the desire for more eco-friendly materials.
Polyester – The All-Rounder
Polyester backpacks are a popular choice for their balance of performance and value, offering a reliable fabric that stands up well to various conditions. The inherent stability of polyester means it resists stretching and shrinking, maintaining its shape through the rigors of daily use and fluctuating temperatures. This resilience makes it an excellent material for backpacks that need to endure everything from daily commutes to spontaneous adventures. Its quick-drying nature is another practical feature, allowing for swift recovery from rain showers or accidental spills, which is particularly advantageous for active users who can’t be slowed down by their gear.
Despite these benefits, polyester does have its drawbacks. It can absorb oils and other substances, which may lead to staining over time. This characteristic requires users to be mindful of the backpack’s exposure to potentially staining agents. Additionally, as a petroleum-based product, polyester carries environmental concerns similar to nylon, particularly regarding its life cycle and the sustainability of its production.
In recent years, the backpack industry has made strides in addressing these environmental concerns by introducing recycled polyester options. Made from post-consumer materials like plastic bottles, recycled polyester (often referred to as rPET) is becoming increasingly common in backpack manufacturing. This shift not only helps reduce the carbon footprint associated with the production of new polyester but also contributes to a circular economy by giving a second life to plastic waste. The rise of rPET signifies the industry’s commitment to innovation and sustainability, offering consumers a more environmentally responsible choice without compromising the functional attributes that make polyester a steadfast material for backpacks.
Leather – The Classic Choice
Leather backpacks are a blend of sophistication, resilience, and enduring style, each crafted from various types of leather that cater to different preferences and needs. Top-grain leather, known for its flexibility and smooth appearance, is a more refined but slightly less durable option than the robust full-grain leather, which is prized for its ability to develop a rich patina over time. Suede, with its signature softness, offers a lighter alternative, though it trades off some resistance to water and stains. For those seeking a budget-friendly choice, genuine leather provides an accessible entry point, though it doesn’t boast the longevity or the character of higher-quality leathers.
The craftsmanship of a leather backpack is evident in its aesthetic details and functional design. As leather ages, it acquires a patina that enhances its look, making each backpack uniquely personal. The durability of a leather backpack extends beyond the material itself to the quality of stitching, the sturdiness of zippers, and the heft of buckles and clasps. Available in a spectrum of colors and finishes, leather can suit a range of styles from the sleek professionalism of a glossy black finish to the earthy, rugged appeal of a matte brown.
Despite its beauty, leather requires attention to maintain its best qualities. Heavier than synthetic fabrics, leather may not be the first choice for those who prioritize lightweight materials, but its longevity can make it a worthwhile investment. Regular conditioning and proper storage are essential to prevent the leather from drying and cracking, especially if exposed to harsh conditions. While leather’s natural water resistance can be enhanced with waxes and treatments, it’s best to avoid prolonged exposure to wet environments. Ethically sourced and sustainably produced leather options are available for the environmentally conscious consumer, offering a responsible choice without compromising on quality. As leather conforms to its contents and the wearer’s body over time, it becomes not just a carrying accessory but a comfortable extension of one’s personal style.
Canvas – The Natural Option
Canvas backpacks are celebrated for their robust natural fibers, offering a tactile and often nostalgic appeal to those who appreciate a more traditional material in their gear. The fabric’s heavy-duty nature ensures it can stand up to the wear and tear of everyday use, making it a favorite among students, artists, and anyone in need of a reliable carryall. The texture of canvas is distinctively rugged, often associated with a vintage or retro aesthetic that grows more characterful with age and use.
One of the unique features of canvas is its ability to be waxed, enhancing its water resistance and durability. This treatment adds a layer of protection against the elements, making the backpack suitable for outdoor activities or unpredictable weather. However, the addition of wax also increases the weight of the fabric, which is already heavier than synthetic alternatives. This is a trade-off that many are willing to make for the added resilience and distinctive style that a waxed canvas provides.
Maintenance is an important consideration for canvas backpacks. The fabric’s susceptibility to mildew means that it requires more care, especially when exposed to moisture. Proper cleaning and drying are essential to preserve the integrity of the material. Despite this, the appeal of canvas lies in its timeless look and the way it evolves with the user, developing a patina and softness that reflect its journey. For those who value a connection to natural materials and a classic, enduring style, canvas backpacks are a fitting choice that embodies both form and function.
Advanced Synthetics – The Modern Materials
Advanced synthetic materials like TPU (Thermoplastic Polyurethane) and PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) represent the cutting edge in backpack innovation, offering unique properties that cater to modern demands. TPU stands out for its remarkable flexibility, durability, and resistance to oil and grease, making it a preferred material for backpacks that need to withstand varied environmental conditions. Its ability to be recycled also marks it as an environmentally friendlier alternative to traditional synthetics, aligning with the growing consumer demand for sustainable products.
PVC, known for its robustness and waterproof qualities, has been a staple in the construction of durable backpacks. However, its production and disposal raise health and environmental concerns, leading to a decline in its popularity among manufacturers and consumers who prioritize ecological impact. Despite this, PVC’s ability to provide a waterproof barrier remains unmatched, making it a practical choice for certain applications where keeping contents dry is paramount.
The rise of TPU in high-end backpacks is partly due to its clear, rubber-like properties that lend a contemporary look and feel to the design. This aesthetic versatility, combined with its performance characteristics, has made TPU a favored material for designers looking to combine style with substance.
In the realm of advanced synthetics, materials like X-Pac have emerged as a revolutionary choice for those seeking the ultimate combination of strength, waterproofing, and lightweight design. X-Pac’s layered construction, which often includes a woven nylon face for abrasion resistance and a polyester film to prevent stretching, results in backpacks that are not only durable and water-resistant but also maintain their shape under load. The distinctive visual texture of X-Pac material has become a style statement in itself, distinguishing high-end and specialized backpacks from their peers.
As we continue to push the boundaries of material science, innovations like Dyneema are setting new standards for performance without the weight penalty. Known for its exceptional strength-to-weight ratio, chemical and UV resistance, Dyneema is expanding the possibilities for backpack design, allowing for the creation of gear that is both incredibly light and extraordinarily tough. These advanced synthetics are shaping the future of backpacks, offering users an array of options that do not compromise on durability, style, or environmental responsibility.
Choosing the Right Material
Think About the Weather: The material you choose should match where you’ll be using the backpack. For example, nylon might not be great for long days in the sun, and leather might not like being very wet.
What Are You Carrying?: If you’re carrying delicate things like a laptop, you might want a backpack with a special padded section. If you’re carrying heavy tools, you’ll need a really strong material, like ballistic nylon.
The Environmental Impact of Backpack Materials
Going Green: The good news is that more backpacks are being made with recycled materials, like rPET, which is made from old plastic bottles. This is better for the planet and still gives you a strong backpack. There’s also a trend towards using natural or responsibly sourced materials.
Choosing the right fabric for your backpack can make your adventures better, whether you’re in the city or out in nature. With new materials being made all the time, and more focus on taking care of the planet, the world of backpack fabrics is getting more exciting and diverse.
Zach Belmont has been working in the outdoor apparel industry in one form or another for over 20 years. During his career, he has worked at some of the most well-known adventure brands including Patagonia and The North Face in marketing, operations and product development. Zach currently lives in Wyoming with his wife and 2 kids.