Can You Use a 3-Season Tent in Winter?

Can You Use a Three-Season Tent in Winter

Most three-season tents can be used for winter camping or backpacking if you set them up below treeline, they have strong aluminum or carbon fiber tent poles, and you bring sufficient sleeping insulation and warm clothing to remain comfortable in cold weather. You can also make a three-season tent more comfortable in winter by building wind-breaks or enhanced vestibule areas out of snow if you bring an avalanche shovel with you.

Tent Poles

First, you need a tent that uses tent poles or trekking poles made with aluminum or carbon fiber and not tent poles made with fiberglass. It can be a double-wall tent or a single-wall tent. It doesn’t matter. Aluminum tent poles and trekking poles are strong enough to use in cold weather and under moderate snow loads on the roof of the tent, but fiberglass tent poles tend to shatter in cold temperatures when stressed. What’s a moderate snow load? To be conservative, let’s say 3″ of overnight snow. Less if the snow is saturated with water. It kind of depends on your tent, what shape it has, and how often you bang on the roof at night to keep snow from accumulating on top.

You often need to strap winter gear to the outside of your backpack
You often need to strap extra winter gear to the outside of your backpack, including a shovel.

Insulation

Next, you’ll need clothing, a sleeping bag or quilt, and a sleeping pad sufficient to weather the temperatures you want to camp in. While a tent can prevent the wind from robbing your heat, thin tent walls don’t impart any insulation value beyond your clothing or sleep system. We recommend a sleeping pad with an R-value of 5 or more. This can be one pad or two stacked on top of the other since sleeping pad R-values are additive. Most people bring a folding foam pad, like a Therm-a-Rest Zlite sleeping pad, to sit on (instead of the snow) when cooking meals or melting snow, which can also be used as part of your sleep system. See our comprehensive list of sleeping pad R-values to look up your pad’s R-value.

Tent Anchors

When the ground is frozen solid or covered with a deep layer of snow, you can’t rely on regular tent stakes, conventional guyline tensioners, and guylines to stake your tent down for structural support or to prevent it from blowing away in the wind. The easiest thing to do is to grab an 8″ stick if you’re in a forested area, tie a guyline around it, and bury it in the snow so it freezes in place. This is called a deadman. Snow stakes (REI sells excellent blaze orange ones) serve the same purpose, but it helps to practice using them at home before doing it in the snow when you’re wearing heavily insulated gloves.

One option is to bury snow stakes to anchor your tent
One option is to bury snow stakes to anchor your tent

You can also stake out a tent with skis, ice axes, dismantled trekking poles, or snowshoes. Believe it or not, plastic supermarket shopping bags also make good deadmen. Fill one with snow. Tie it to your tent’s guyline and bury it in a hole you’ve dug with your avalanche shovel.

Plastic shopping bags make excellent snow anchors. Just be sure to dig them out when you pack up.
Plastic shopping bags make excellent snow anchors. Just be sure to dig them out when you pack up.

Avalanche Shovel

Avalanche shovels are compact shovels carried by winter backpackers and campers to create snow structures, including kitchen areas and walls made out of snow. Some have shovels blades that can be separated from the handle to make them easier to pack. You can use a shovel to create snow structures that augment your tent and make it more weather-worthy for winter camping.

I like to dig a pit in front of my front door to melt snow out of the wind.
I like to dig a pit in front of my front door to melt snow out of the wind. It also makes it much easier to put on or take off boots.

For example, the rain fly or walls of most three-season tents, especially those of ultralight tents, seldom go all the way to the ground, but leave a big air gap for added ventilation. This is fine in hot weather, but it lets cold wind blow through the bottom of your tent in winter, which is most unpleasant and robs heat from your sleep system. You can fix this by piling snow up around the base of your tent like a low wall, cutting snow blocks and building a wall to block the wind, or by digging a shallow pit to set your tent up in. It’s Leave No Trace because it will all melt by spring.

Winter campers build snow walls around their tents to block the wind
Winter campers build snow walls around their tents to block the wind. This is rather elaborate, but all you really need is about 1-2 feet of snow piled up around your tent.

It still helps to keep your tent door partially unzipped, especially toward the ceiling, to prevent moist air from collecting insides and creating frost on the walls, but it stops the wind in its tracks.

More Tips

Some double-wall three-season tents are available with interchangeable inner tents that have insect netting for warmer weather and solid fabric walls for winter. The solid walls block wind to make you more comfortable. Tarptent provides this option on their Notch Li, Notch, Moment, and Hogback tents.

Tarptent Notch Li Solid Interior
Tarptent Notch Li Partial Solid Interior

Most of Hilleberg’s tents have solid doors and walls for this same reason. Big Sky International and SlingFin also sell some tents with a solid inner. You can also find solid inners or partial inner tents on most of MSR’s tents, including the 4-season Access Tent Series and even on the 3-season MSR Hubba NX 1, Hubba Hubba NX2, and Mutha Hubba NX3. That’s just a partial list off the top of my head. If you’re shopping for a new tent and you want 4-season versatility, this is a good option to consider.

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More Winter Backpacking Frequently Asked Questions

About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its detailed gear reviews and educational content. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide. He is also the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. In addition, Philip volunteers as a 4 season backpacking leader for the Appalachian Mountain Club, a Long Trail Mentor for Vermont's Green Mountain Club, and a Leave No Trace Master Educator. He lives in New Hampshire.

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9 comments

  1. I want to subscribe

  2. Do you bear bag in the winter? Of course lots of animals hibernate, including bears, but not all do…so just curious what you do in the winter.

    • It depends on the weather and when in winter….but generally, in New Hampshire, the answer is no because it is bloody cold and the bears are asleep. There aren’t any other major predators or nuisance animals worth bothering about. I just put my food in my pack and sleep near it either in the tent or just outside, depending on the tent and how much room we have.

    • I second Phillip’s comment: “It depends on …” I live further south. So, I use a bear bag, Ursack or canister, even in winter. In West Virginia, we may get temperatures in the teens and up to a couple feet of snow, but usually not for long. Bears no longer hibernate reliably here, not only because winters are warmer than they used to be, but also because they can steal from humans as people spread and destroy habitat. Bears may den up for a few days during cold weather without actually hibernating, then emerge when temperatures warm. Raccoons, mice, etc. are even more active.

      • Good to know. I live in MN so I’m thinking of forgoing the bag unless it’s unseasonably warm. Thanks for the tip.

  3. I have both the Tarptent Notch Li and TT Moment DW (with optional X-ing pole), both with “solid” interior.

    For winter I much prefer the Moment DW with the X-ing pole I shortened and rand UNDER the fly. The guy points are more numerous and it has fly hem stake loops for high winds. I’ve added these stake lops to my Notch Li with Tenacious Tape reinforcements.

    I have used my Moment DW in winter and it has proven very suitable WITH the X-ing pole under the fly for snow load support.

    AND I’ve also “winter modded” our TT Scarp 2 by shortening the X-ing poles and running them under the fly, anchoring them in the pole end sleeves there were formerly on lines outside at each corner. Now the poles push down against the peaks of each corner “Pitchloc” triangle. VERY strong and secure.

  4. All these tips are great. I have found that a few hand warmers in your bag make a huge difference in comfort.

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