Choosing a backpack leaves you with a lot to consider and a ton of jargon to wade through.
Backpack materials vary in their weight, durability, water resistance and other properties – which can make choosing the best option for you a nightmare!
If your backpack falls apart quickly, it’s a waste of money. If it’s too heavy, you’ll end up hating it. And if your bag doesn’t have at least some level of water resistance, your luggage will end up soaked as soon as it rains.
So to help you make the best choice of backpack materials, we’ve taken a deep dive into what backpacks are made from!
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The Most Common Backpack Materials
In years gone by, backpacks were made from a range of natural materials – wool, cotton, hemp and other natural fibres were all used.
But with the advent of modern materials, especially the creation of plastics, that all changed.
Today, the most common materials used to make backpacks are nylon and polyester.
When they were first created in the early 20th century, nylon and polyester had a bunch of different properties and applications. However, more recent breakthroughs in production and weaving processes have brought the two materials closer together. Both are excellent materials for backpacks but there are still some differences between the two.
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Nylon is super common in today’s world. This plastic-based thread can be woven in a multitude of ways to create fabrics with very different properties.
In general, nylon is strong, abrasion resistant and handles temperature changes very well.
As well as this, nylon is water-resistant, lightweight and resistant to mould, fungi and insects – making it a great material for tropical regions like Southeast Asia!
Our Favourite Nylon Backpack — Pacsafe Venturesafe EXP45 ECONYL
The main downside of nylon is that it’s not stain or UV resistant – without extra treatment, it can break down if left exposed to the sun for extended periods. It’s also not breathable, so unless your bag has a good back panel, you’ll end up very sweaty in no time!
It’s relatively easy to find bags made of recycled nylon. It has the same properties as virgin nylon so to keep your backpack sustainable, opt for the recycled material!
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Polyester is cheaper but weaker than nylon. However, that’s not the end of the story.
Polyester thread is thinner and lighter than nylon, meaning you can use more thread to create a tighter weave for the same weight. This brings additional durability benefits.
Polyester is UV resistant, hydrophobic and dries out superfast should the material be submerged. It’s easy to dye using waterless methods and takes print very well. This means polyester bags come in a wide array of colours and designs.
It’s less static than nylon too, so you’re less likely to get a shock when in particularly arid environments.
Like nylon, polyester isn’t very breathable. It’s also very flammable, so avoid getting too close to an open flame with your polyester backpack!
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Branded Materials and Specific Weaves
Canvas backpacks are a throwback to a bygone era of travel. Traditionally made of cotton, most canvas backpacks today are built from synthetic fibres such as Cotna Polyester – which looks and behaves like cotton but is slightly lighter and much more durable.
However, even new synthetic cotton-like materials are heavy and don’t resist water, so they need to be treated with a repellent coating to ensure your gear stays safe and dry!
Cotton canvas bags are, as the name suggests, made from traditional cotton canvas. While less common than they used to be, they’re still available from high-end brands. Today cotton canvas bags are sold more for their aesthetics than practicalities. The material is heavy, not as durable as plastic-based fabrics and can literally rot away if you don’t look after it.
Our favourite cotton canvas bag — Terra Thread’s Bumi Eco Duffel Bag
If you do opt for a classy cotton canvas bag, it’s worth looking into the pros and cons of organic cotton before coming down on where to buy your bag from. While organic cotton is often touted as an eco-friendly fabric, this is essentially greenwashing for a fabric that uses far more land and resources than the non-organic varieties.
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UHMWPE (Ultra-High-Molecular-Weight Polyethylene)
It’s a mouthful to say but UHMWPE fabrics are at the cutting edge of backpack materials. While the material has been in production since the ‘50s, UHMWPE backpacks have only been available for the last couple of decades.
Created for industrial, medical and military purposes, UHMWPE is super lightweight, tough as nails (quite literally as it’s often touted to be stronger than steel), waterproof, UV and chemical resistant.
Our favourite UHMWPE backpack — Hyperlite Mountain Gear Unbound 40
The downside of Dyneema and other UHMWPE fabrics is their price! Compared to other backpack materials they’re super expensive. They also have a strange feel to them that is unlike any other fabric.
Cordura is a brand rather than a fibre or fabric. They produce a range of nylon and polyester fibres that appear in outdoor clothes, backpacks, luggage and motorcycle gear. The Cordura name implies a high-quality material but you need to look further to see what the material actually is and how it will behave.
Our favourite Cordura backpack — Mystery Ranch Mission Duffel
Very similar to Cordura, albeit with less stringent control or regulations. Fabrics from Kodra are still considered excellent quality.
Our favourite Kodra bag — Boundary Supply Errant Duffel
Ballistic Nylon isn’t a different type of nylon. Instead, it’s a fabric created with a specific weaving technique known as 2×2 basket weave.
In its original inception, Ballistic Nylon was used by the military as a proto-bulletproof fabric. While it never really worked at stopping bullets or shrapnel, it did prove to be one of the most durable fabrics available.
Our favourite Ballistic Nylon backpack — Tom Bihn Shadow Guide 33
It’s rugged with high abrasion resistance. It can easily be treated to make an almost completely waterproof fabric. However, it’s a thick material, so although backpacks made from Ballistic Nylon are ultra-durable, they tend to be heavy.
Rather than seeing entire backpacks made of Ballistic Nylon, it’s more common to find the material in high-wear areas like the bottom of wheeled backpacks.
In their most simple form, ripstop fabrics are created from a weaving method that builds a reinforcing grid across the material. It adds tear resistance for little to no weight increase. Almost all threads can be woven into a ripstop pattern, so this material is super common in backpacks.
Ripstop is easy to spot – it has a series of squares (or a grid) across the surface of your bag!
The downside is ripstop can be more susceptible to abrasion due to the slightly raised grid pattern.
For an in-depth look at ripstop, check out this video about Ripstop Nylon.
X-Pac fabrics, like UHMWPE, are on the cutting edge of backpack material science. Built from a series of laminated layers rather than a weave, X-Pac is strong, lightweight and waterproof. Originally created for boat sails, there are several X-Pac fabrics used in backpack construction today. These tend to be VX-21, VX-07 and VX-03.
Our favourite X-Pac backpack — Boundary Supply Prima System (X-Pac)
The main downside of X-Pac is the price. It’s another super expensive material and is most common in lightweight hiking or outdoor gear. However, it’s slowly finding its way into more everyday backpacks.
Robic, also known as Robic Nylon or High Tenacity Nylon is a different formulation to standard nylon. A slight chemical change in the plastic creates a stronger, more abrasion-resistant thread that can be woven just like standard nylon.
Our favourite Robic Nylon backpack — Osprey Porter 46
Backpacks made of Robic Nylon tend to be lighter and more durable than those made of standard nylon. However, they don’t compete with bags made from materials like UHMWPE or X-Pac.
More Materials for Making Backpacks
While outdated, leather is still relatively common in high-end fashion bags. It looks great, is super durable and can last a lifetime if looked after properly.
However, leather is heavy and needs to be looked after to stop it breaking down over time. It also isn’t naturally waterproof. This isn’t the end of the world as it can be easily treated to make it water-resistant.
Flashes of leather are often used on high-end travel bags because of the classy look it adds.
Vegan leather backpacks are rare. In theory, they imitate the look and feel of real leather without the need for livestock. Vegan leather can be made of plastics or natural materials such as apple skins and pineapple peel. It tends to be less durable than real leather and there are compelling arguments to not touch vegan leather.
Hemp has been used to make fabrics for over 10,000 years. It requires much less land and water to grow than cotton and there are fewer pesticides used in its production.
Compared to other natural fibres, hemp is tough! It’s also lightweight, soft and breathable making it a pliable fabric to make backpacks with.
However, it’s not as durable as nylon or polyester and costs more. There’s a future for hemp backpacks but for now, they remain elusive and expensive.
How to Make Backpack Material Waterproof
There are several technologies involved in making waterproof backpacks. While some materials keep your gear dry without additional treatments, most do not.
So to keep your stuff safe from errant weather conditions, backpack manufacturers take steps to make their bags are as water-resistant as possible.
DWR – Durable Water Repellent Coating
DWR is a simple polymer coating that’s applied to the outside of your backpack, usually by the manufacturer. It causes water to bead off rather than soak into the fabric.
Over time, DWR coatings lose their efficiency. If you notice that water is no longer beading off your bag, you can reactivate the coating by washing and drying the bag. If this doesn’t work, you can buy DWR sprays to reapply the coating yourself.
Sometimes you’ll see the letters ‘PU’ mentioned in bag specs. This means the backpack material has been treated with a polyurethane coating. This is essentially a liquid plastic that’s been painted onto the bag to create a waterproof, abrasion-resistant layer.
More common in fully waterproof backpacks than water-resistant travel bags, a PVC coating can be laminated onto other materials, creating a waterproof layer. PVC is tough but the thin coating on backpacks can wear away leaving leaky spots!
Some backpacks include a TPU (thermoplastic polyurethane) layer that can be laminated or sprayed onto the inside of the pack. This creates a water-resistant layer on the inside of the bag, so is often used in conjunction with exterior coatings to increase water resistance.
Backpack Hardware Materials
What are backpack straps made of?
Backpack straps are usually made of nylon. However, it’s not uncommon to find some companies making backpack straps from polyester or Dyneema.
What are backpack zips made of?
Most backpack zips are made of metal or plastic. It varies depending on the make and model of the backpack. A good zipper brand is more important than the material used to make the zip. Look out for zippers from YKK, SBS, KEE and RiRi.
What are backpack buckles made of?
Backpack buckles are made from a range of materials such as POM (Polyoxymethylene), Nylon, Polypropylene, ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), PVC, TPR (Thermoplastic rubber) and various metals.
Backpack Materials — A Round-Up
With such a vast range of uses, demands and aesthetic requirements, you’ll find a huge range of materials used to make backpacks. The most common are still nylon and polyester but with advances in production and weaving techniques, these aren’t the same nylon and polyesters that were created almost 100 years ago.
When choosing the best backpack for you, don’t get to hung up on what it’s made from. Unless you have a very specialist use case, like thru-hiking or mountaineering, most modern backpack materials will be more than suitable. For most of us, the backpack brand, size or whether it’s it has a frame or not will be more important than the material it’s made from!