What is a 4 Season Tent?

Mountain Hardware Stronghold 10 Person Tent

Mountain Hardware Stronghold 10 Person Base Camp Tent

One of our regular section hiker readers recently asked “What is the difference between a 4 season tent and a 3 season tent?” It’s a good question because the distinction is blurry. Moreover the phrase “4 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 3 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 (MSRP $3,200) 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 under 3 lbs. This tent has been reported to leak in heavy sustained rain, but that doesn’t matter in winter conditions when precipitation will be in the form of snowfall.

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. Golite, 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 Golite, Black Diamond (acquired Bibler), 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?

Written 2009. Updated 2013.

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13 Responses to What is a 4 Season Tent?

  1. Mark Verber November 10, 2009 at 10:55 pm #

    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.

    –Mark

  2. jarra November 10, 2009 at 11:00 pm #

    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. Earlylite November 11, 2009 at 4:19 am #

    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. Tom Murphy November 11, 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    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?

    Tommy

  5. Scott J November 11, 2009 at 2:25 pm #

    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. Dave Hollin November 11, 2009 at 3:33 pm #

    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. Jane November 11, 2009 at 6:20 pm #

    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. David D. from the Up November 12, 2009 at 7:18 am #

    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?

    Thanks,

    David

  9. Tom Murphy November 12, 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    I have used a candle latern in my tent but I would not reccomend using a stove in a tent.

    I use a SVEA 123R and it can flare up which would be bad inside a tent.

    YMMV – see this guide's website for another opinion

    <font color="#008000">www.chauvinguides.com/presitraverse/presicookingguide.htm</font>

  10. Jane J November 12, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    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.

  11. David D. from the Up November 12, 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    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

  12. Bryan November 17, 2009 at 8:01 am #

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

  13. Arlen June 3, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

    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.

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