Is DCF Overrated? Pros and Cons of Everyone’s Favorite UL Fabric
DCF was the revolutionary backpacking fabric of the 2000s. Borrowing an innovative fabric from sailboat racing, hikers were suddenly able to cut their tent weight by 50 percent overnight. At a time when 20-plus-pound base weights had been common, 15- and even 10-pound base weights suddenly became widely attainable. DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabric) has since grown in popularity. It’s now used for all sorts of backpacking applications, from packs to rain jackets.
Gear makers were quick to tout it as a do-anything, no-compromise fabric. It’s 15x stronger pound-for-pound than steel, it’s totally waterproof, it will make your tent 40 percent lighter.
What the marketing teams didn’t mention were the fabric’s downsides. You’ll pay twice as much, an aggressive pine needle can puncture it, your neighbor can see your butt’s outline through it.
After a decade of popularity, is this miracle material all it was cracked up to be?
DCF ≠ Dyneema
There are a lot of misnomers in the land of tech fabrics. To clarify a few terms:
Dyneema: A brand-name version of UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene). It is a fiber, not a fabric. Formerly known as Cuben Fiber.
DCF: Dyneema Composite Fabric, or a textile made of a widely spaced grid of Dyneema fiber sandwiched between two sheets of polyester plastic laminate (mylar). Often used for tarps/tent flys and stuff sacks.
DCH: Dyneema Composite Hybrid. A textile made of DCF with an additional face fabric to protect it from abrasion (typically 50D or 150D polyester woven fabric). Typically used in packs.
Ultra: A new fabric by Challenge Outdoor. A woven fabric with a 70-percent UHMWPE, 30-percent polyester face and a plastic laminate backing, similar to DCF. Typically used in packs.
Silnylon: Short for silicone-coated nylon, the most common fabric for tents and stuff sacks. This fabric is woven and coated, not laminated.
SilPoly: Short for silicone-coated polyester; similar to silnylon but not used as often. This fabric is becoming more popular because it costs about the same as silnylon but doesn’t absorb as much water or stretch when wet.
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What Makes DCF So Good?
High Tensile Strength: Due to the high strength-to-weight ratio of Dyneema, a very small amount of the fiber is strong enough for tension applications, such as pyramid tents and cordage.
Very Waterproof*: In lab tests, DCF is very waterproof. Some tests have rated it to over 10,000mm of hydrostatic head. In other words, a 32-foot-tall column of water could sit on top of it before it leaks. This is largely thanks to it being a laminate, where two solid layers are supported in the middle by the tension strength of Dyneema. Woven and coated fabrics like silpoly are more likely to have a lower score because the threads can start to separate more easily.
*These are lab tests on brand-new fabric. See the next section for more detail.
Light as a Feather: Ultralight gear makers typically use one of three common weights for DCF: 0.34, 0.51, and 1.0 oz/yd². For comparison, nylon and poly fabrics often start at 1.0 oz/yd² and quickly move closer to 2. Functionally, products made with DCF enjoy a 25 to 50 percent gross weight reduction compared to nylon and polyester.
For example, Tarptent uses 1.5 oz/yd² nylon for their standard Notch tent. In contrast, the ultralight Notch Li uses .55 oz/yd² DCF for the fly and 1.0 oz/yd² DCF for the floor. The standard model weighs 27.6 ounces (without stakes) compared to 20.4 ounces for the DCF “lithium” version—a 26 percent weight savings.
Low Stretch/Sag: Dyneema has very low elasticity and does not stretch when it absorbs water (which it has little capacity for anyway). This means once you pitch a tent made with Dyneema fibers, it will retain its shape and tension unless your stakes pull out.
Does Not Gain Weight When Wet: Because the fabric has very little absorbency, it’s easy to shake out and won’t feel waterlogged after an overnight deluge, a common complaint with silnylon.
Easy To Repair: Because there is a smooth plastic layer on both faces of DCF, repair tape will produce a permanent, full-strength, waterproof repair as long as the patch is appropriately sized.
What Are the Drawbacks of DCF?
Very Poor Abrasion and Puncture Resistance: While Dyneema itself is a reasonably cut-resistant fiber, the laminate layer that makes DCF repel water and retain its shape is very weak.
A single slide against rough surfaces like rocks can put dozens of microscopic holes in DCF. Stuff sacks can get pinholes just from contact with normal gear inside your pack like charger cables, battery banks, and sunscreen tubes. Some theorize that damage from packing DCF tents in tight stuff sacks causes more leaks than environmental factors do.
Site selection is crucial to keep DCF tent floors in good shape. Gravel, rock, sharp pine needles, goatheads, and cactus needles can all puncture them with ease.
Waterproofness Fades Quickly: While a brand-new sheet of DCF may be able to hold back a tsunami, it doesn’t take much wear and tear for small holes to create leakage. This is especially common on tent floors and around “rigid” sections (line locks, trekking pole cups, three-way corners, etc).
Longevity: Pinhole leakage, delamination, etc. mean DCF tents often last just half as long as silnylon and silpoly tents. Most manufacturers and hikers say a DCF tent will last “one full thru-hike” of a Triple Crown trail (approximately 150 nights). Their conventional counterparts are much more likely to last 300 to 400 days.
Cost: Name-brand DCF is expensive. Due to the difficulty of sourcing and laminating an appropriate mylar layer, no other manufacturer has managed to make something as light and strong to create cost competition. For example, the silpoly Tarptent Protrail costs $239, while the DCF version costs $529. That’s a 221 percent markup for a tent estimated to last half as long. If you break that out into the cost of using your tent per night, it may be four to five times more expensive to go light.
Packed Volume: DCF becomes very bulky when packed, especially fabric weights at and above 0.5 oz/yd². Despite weighing 25 to 50 percent less than their silnylon counterparts, the UL versions of most tents are the same volume or even larger, meaning a bigger backpack.
Difficulty to Manufacture: Despite the obvious appeal of big weight savings, it has taken a surprisingly long time for DCF tents to become reliable and consistently made. DCF and especially DCH can delaminate, meaning the layers of the fabric “unglue” from each other.
Makers have extensively tested and debated the best way to join and seal DCF and DCH edges. What size needle is best? What type of thread? Do you sew at all or just use tape? Tape the inside or outside? Is hot bonding worth the cost? What factory has the expertise to work with this niche material?
Several cottage brands tested and then abandoned DCF tents for this very reason in the early days. There is better consensus now on how to work with this material, but it’s not as safe and straightforward as classic woven materials.
Shrinkage: If your superlight stuff sack or tent feels a little snugger than when it was new, it’s not your imagination. As the fabric is used, packed, and scrunched up, it can shrink. Dan Timmerman at Timmermade theorizes this is due to the mylar “bunching up” around the Dyneema fiber. While shrinkage seems to be reversible, it would be difficult and time-consuming to do on an ongoing basis.
Personally, I have used many DCF stuff sacks and had to replace several over the years due to leakage. When I got an “identical” replacement, the size difference shocked me. Over time, my old stuff sacks had experienced between 5- and 15-percent linear dimension loss. Even 10 percent shrinkage in any direction equates to a 27 percent loss in volume. That’s enough to make your sleeping bag not fit anymore.
Translucency: The weave of Dyneema fiber is widely spaced and the laminate is not particularly opaque. As a result, DCF tents are relatively see-through. If you get a strong backlight at sunset while setting up, your neighbor might get a higher-detail silhouette of your butt than you would hope for. This is particularly bad with the superlight 0.34 oz/yd² versions used by some manufacturers.
Winter Performance: DCF and DCH both tend to become rigid and crinkly when the temps dip below freezing. Freezing rain, slush, and freezing body vapors stick to the fabric aggressively. And ice can’t always be removed safely without thawing first. Silpoly has remained popular for winter and alpine products for this reason.
Is a DCF tent worth it?
Despite its many drawbacks, UHMWPE-based backpacking products remain popular for their ability to slash weight. The main downsides (abrasion resistance, cost, and manufacturing techniques) have all improved as experience and competition have grown. Whether spending $300 to save 10 ounces is worthwhile will vary with your use, budget, and experience level.
Personally, three of the five tents I currently have are DCF, both of my high-volume packs are made of Ultra (a DCH competitor), and I use a single DCF stuff sack for odds and ends. However, I wouldn’t recommend the same to a budget-conscious or new backpacker.
You can get more bang for your buck with DCF by taking good care of it. Roll (don’t fold/stuff) your tent, pick campsites carefully, and use an oversized tent stuff sack to avoid cramming it in on a rushed morning.
Featured image: Photo via GPS. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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