A winter trip participant asked me recently if it was ok for them to bring a three-season tent on a winter backpacking trip in the White Mountains.
Here’s how I replied:
It is often possible to use a three-season tent or shelter in winter conditions as long as it provides you with good wind protection and it has steep walls to shed snow. There’s no need to go out and buy a bomber winter tent, especially if you’re only going to use it once or twice each winter. I wouldn’t recommend you use a system like this for above treeline camping, but below treeline where there is better wind protection, a setup like this will usually work provided that you give yourself adequate time to stamp out a pitch in the snow and find a more protected site.
In winter, you need a tent that’s going to protect you from drafts which can reduce the thermal efficiency of your sleeping bag. To prevent this, you want a tent with solid walls (like the Black Diamond Firstlight) or a double-walled tent where the fly covers all of the mesh in the inner tent and almost touches the ground (like the Nemo Obi 1 shown, above). Ideally, the inner tent will have a very high-walled bathtub floor, with solid fabric running half-way up the side of the tent to prevent wind from blowing under the fly and onto you.
Most winter tents have steep-sided walls that are designed to shed heavy nighttime snowfall so it doesn’t crush the tent or they have a geodesic shape which is very strong and can withstand heavy snow loads. We don’t normally get unexpectedly large amounts of snowfall in the White Mountains, although there will be 1 or 2 storms per year that generate a foot or more. Still, having a tent or shelter with steep walls means you won’t have to get up at night to shake the snow off your tent and it won’t fall on you when you open your front door in the morning.
If you are planning on buying a three-season tent that you might also use in winter conditions, here are a few additional features you should consider before making a purchase.
- Freestanding Tents: When you pitch a tent on snow, you often can’t stake it down like you would a 3 season tent because there’s too much snow or the ground underneath the snow is frozen solid. Instead, you need to freeze stakes in the snow for 15-30 minutes before you can tie your tent to them and set it up. An easier solution is to get a tent which is freestanding and can be set up instantly,without waiting. Here are a few lightweight 3 three season tents which are freestanding and which you could use in the White Mountains in winter: Big Agnes Copper Spur 2 , Kelty Salida 2, and the REI Quarter Dome 1
- Vestibules: Moisture management is a huge problem in winter and you want to try to keep as much snow out of your tent as possible to prevent it from melting and condensing on the walls. If you have a tent with a vestibule, that’s built into the fly, or even better can be added in winter, it gives you a place to stash your snow-covered gear, take off your boots without tracking snow into the tent, and even cook in (with proper ventilation), if the weather is bad.
- Extra tie-downs: Many tents come with extra loops on the outer fly that can be staked out to provide additional anchor points in high winds. These tie-outs can also be useful to counter wind deformation of the tent’s outer skin in extreme conditions and provide better comfort in bad weather.
- Top vents or windows: It helps to have some ventilation in winter so that moisture, particularly from your breath, can be vented so it doesn’t freeze on the inside walls of your tent. Top vents or even a small zippered back window, like the one in the Black Diamond Firstlight tent, can really help prevent moisture build-up at night.
Just to reiterate my points above, many 3 season tents can be adequate for winter backpacking and camping as long as you camp below treeline in more protected locations. As always, good campsite selection skills are necessary. I would not recommend using the same setup for above treeline camping like the kind you see in Everest high camps. That’s a different kettle of fish entirely.
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