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What is a 4 Season Tent?

Mountain Hardware Stronghold 10 Person Tent

Mountain Hardware Stronghold 10 Person Base Camp Tent

“What is the difference between a four season tent and a three season tent?” It’s a good question because the distinction is blurry. Moreover the phrase “four season tent” is a misnomer since it refers to winter tents, which you might not use the rest of the year because they could be too heavy or too hot.

The chief differences between winter tents and three season ones are wind resistance and the ability to withstand heavy snow fall. Consequently, winter tents typically come with an extra rigid exoskeleton and have steeply angled sides.

The Mountain Hardware Stronghold is an extreme example of this but useful for illustration. The Stronghold comes with 15 external poles to hold up to the strong wind gusts found at high elevation base camps. The geodesic shape and its high angle walls are effective in shedding snow and help maximize interior space. An external fly also adds more rigidity.

In addition, it’s also important to have good venting and a vestibule in a winter tent.

Good venting prevents internal frost build-up. When you exhale in winter, the moisture in your breath will freeze to the roof and sides of your shelter. This becomes problematic as your body heat warms the tent’s interior because the frost will melt and make you and your gear wet.

Vestibules provide a transition zone for you to remove and store gear that has been covered in snow or ice. You want to bring as little snow as possible into your tent because it will raise the relative humidity of its micro-climate and accelerate internal frost build-up. Make sure to carefully brush out any snow that gets inside.

If it’s very windy outside and you need to melt snow or cook, a vestibule can act as a wind break, but you need to be very careful not to catch your tent on fire or suffocate from carbon monoxide poisoning. Personally, I avoid cooking and eating in a tent, but eating and drinking in winter is important to keep up your metabolism and stay warm. One trick is to dig a square pit under your vestibule to make it easier to remove wet gear and to increase the distance between your stove and the vestibule ceiling.

Rain flies and floors are not necessary components in a winter tent or shelter.

For example, I own a Black Diamond First Light tent that I use for winter backpacking. It’s a single walled tent made from a breathable fabric called EPIC and its weighs well under three pounds

Given proper waterproof and insulation layers under your sleeping bag, there is also no need for your tent or shelter to have a floor for winter camping. Floorless pyramids (called Mids) are popular as a lightweight option in winter because they can withstand heavy wind, moderate snowfall and have great venting properties. Black Diamond and Mountain Laurel Designs make these.

Depending on size and capacity, winter tents and shelters range in price from about $250 dollars to $6,000. The most popular brands are Black Diamond, Hilleberg, and The North Face. Many of these are quite heavy and need to be carried in pieces by multiple members of your party. I’ve found that bringing a one person lightweight shelter is often lighter than carrying a piece of a heavier tent, but that’s just my preference.

If you own a 4 season tent, what do you have and why do you like it?

Last updated 2016

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  1. I would suggest another difference between a 3 and 4 season shelter is that a four season shelter will always have solid material between the inside of the shelter and the outside, where a three season shelter typically has some amount of netting designed to promote ventilation. The solid walls are necessary to block wind and snow and helps retain some heat.

    Over the years I have used and owned a number of four season tents. My favorite these days are pyramid or tipi shaped tarps. Tarp of this is that they are often significantly lighter than typical for search tents. Your ski or hiking poles can be used to set up the shelter removing the need for a dedicated pole. The lack of a floor makes it possible to dig out the floor providing more room which is warmer than a tent on top of the snow.  It's also easy to have room to cook. A nifty addition (which  I don't own) and light weight  portable wood burning stoves with collapsible chimney that can make the inside quite toasty.


  2. My definition of a winter tent is a little different than yours. Most tents these days are fairly strong and steep walled quasi-domes that would be suitable for winter use, but so many have huge panels of mesh in the body that disqualifies them from winter use because the wind goes right through, therefore making it a three season tent. So for me, a winter tent is three or more poles and a solid tent body. Anything with "15 external poles to hold up to the strong wind gusts found at high elevation" is a mountaineering tent.

    I use a 2 person Sierra Designs convertible tent that has some smallish mesh panels in the roof that can be completely sealed up. It is reasonably priced, lightweight, strong as hell, and is a low key, cream/sage color. Also it uses all clips and no pole sleeves so it is easy to set up.

    I have spent a few winter nights in a floorless Chouinard Pyramid and I don't think that shelter concept offers enough protection for even moderate winter weather- they're basically just a pointy tarp. There is a conflict between the two pieces of advice you offer above… "you want to bring as little snow as possible into your tent" and "there is also no need for your tent or shelter to have a floor for winter camping." because in the second case, the entire floor is snow! I'll take a real tent, thanks.

  3. Excellent point about the need for complete wind blockage. I do own tents that just have mesh sides and they wouldn't work for winter. I guess I forgot to talk about the obvious.

    Mark is right though about packed snow being under-rated as a winter shelter floor. But, loose snow is still bad in a tent's micro-climate. You are essentially sleeping in a big plastic bag, whereas if you're sleeping in a snow pit, the vapor can anneal to the snow walls or floor around you.

    I think jarra makes an excellent observation about the distinction between a mountaineering tent and a winter tent. It makes you wonder why the manufacturers insist on this crazy 3-season, 4-season distinction.

    Thanks for the very thoughtful comments.

  4. A 3 season tent can be used in the winter if you accept the limitations in what you can do because of  potential wind loads and snow loads.

    I use my MH Lightwedge 2 below treeline in the winter.  I watch the forecast and have canceled due to forecasted snow.

    The mesh design has had the benefit of preventing condensation issues.

    On my second "backyard trial test", I had to build a small 1 foot snow wall around three sides to stop snow from blowing under the fly and in through the mesh.

    I was surprised at how little temperature difference there was inside and outside my tent – don't know if that was because of all the mesh.

    Do you know if a 4 season tents "add a few degrees" to your sleep system over a 3 season tent?


  5. I have a Hilliberg Jannu. It's a double wall tent, with the option of taking the inside shell out. This makes a difference on whether I need to utilize the multiple guidines for wind and studyness. Yea, the Jannu is a bit heavy (5lbs) but thats if you need both walls. So far the Jannu has been good for me.

  6. for a one-man proper 4 season tent there is only one – The Hilleberg Soulo. Its a tad heavy at 4.5 lbs but having owned one its the only thing I would use in a really bad winter storm


    other than that I use the Terra Nova Laser Competition (with a few modifications) for most 4 season occasions. At 2lbs its simply superb

  7. I have a Snowtrekker tent with a titanium stove. It's floorless, has two vents near the peak, sets up with thicker-than-summer-type Easton poles. The 2 person version weighs about 15 lbs. No good for backpacking but pretty light for toboggan hauling. Snow flaps sewn along the bottom let you pile snow around the outside and seal out drafts. The light canvas breathes well so less condensation. You are right Phil, the term shouldn't be 4-season, but 4th Season.

  8. There have a been a couple of references to light-weight stoves for use inside the winter tents, do you have links for those stoves?



  9. fourdog.com for titanium and steel

    kifaru.net for collapsible

    snowtrekkertents.com for steel

    These stoves all have chimneys vented thru heatproof gaskets in the tent wall. As I said not for backpacking, but for base camps or hauling on a toboggan and whiling away the dark hours in your long johns.

  10. Thanks, Jane.  I read over the not-for-backpacking part, which would explain my having a hard time visualizing a stove that would work.

    – David

  11. Just a note for DIY types. You can make your own tent stove. It should work fine in tents with built-in vents.

  12. I have been making and using small chimney/stoves as light as1.5 lbs for years.
    I cannot see the need for anything but a tarp for shelter in all seasons at all altitudes.
    Before you say I don’t think so, forget all you know about tent stoves, chimneys, tarp pitches
    I have a stove/chimney, tarp pitch that lets me cook and eat inside in any kind of hostile weather.

  13. I’d like to say that here in the Pacific Northwest it would be risky to depend on it to just snow and to not rain/sleet at any time and at any elevation. So carrying a tent that leaks in order to save a couple of pounds isn’t a great idea.
    I use a nicely priced REI Arete ASL 2 which is a 3-4 season tent in the winter and on snow. It’s not a lightweight tent at just under 6 pounds but I seldom go great distances when snow camping. A very few miles … far enough to get away from roads and commonly-used trails, so weight is not an issue.
    It sheds wind, rain, sleet and snow with ease, has enough venting to keep the inside dry, although after a couple of days of NW rain the inside of any near-solid-wall tent will be somewhat wet. I’ve never had it drippy though.
    I like having a floor and it has a good sized vestibule. I have always used it solo. My wife doesn’t snow camp and all my friends snore so it’s best alone.

  14. I teach survival and we use nothing more than a tarp system year round. Yes, I have my students use a ground cloth. They tamp the floor with snowshoes, then place ground cloth and ISO mat inside. They seal the sides by burying them in snow. This increases the shelter temps by 10 to 15 degrees. Sometimes more. They will stay in these types of shelters up to -35 degrees with little change in equipment. If conditions warrant, I for-go tarps and build snow shelters. They are cheap and very affective.

  15. I have had this tent the terra nova voyager for just under a year now mostly took out out in fair weather I decided to camp on top of Pen-y-fan 11/04/15 the wind condition’s were moderate to strong at the time’s but with this being rated a 4 season tent I was confident it would withstand the weather being thrown at it , but boy was I wrong the arch pole over the door kept being blown back onto the tent and me inside all night despite being pitched correctly the result in the morning was a broken pole and where the red pole sit’s over the two blue horizontal poles it had rubbed holes in both pole sleeves and the stitching inside was tearing through the inner tent where the pole sleeves attach, now I cannot insert the poles through the sleeves without them coming through the holes . I contacted terra nova about this they were useless after many emails and pictures of the damage were sent I had to send it off to them, 2 weeks for them to look at it and after they make a dissension another 2-3 weeks for them to repair it at my expense when it is clearly a design fault as there is no reinforcement protection where the poles overlap on the front of the tent but there is protection on the rear. Truly disappointed in there poor customer service I expected more form a British company I have lost faith in there product’s and will buy a Hilleberg for a better experience .

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