Four-season tents for mountaineering, winter backpacking, and backcountry skiing tours need to be a good deal stronger than regular three season tents if you are camping in exposed windy terrain that is subject to heavy snow loads. The strongest and most wind-resistant tents are wedge or dome-shaped and freestanding, so they are completely self-supporting. You still need to secure them to the ground to keep them from blowing away in wind, but freestanding tents can be set up on any surface including open rock ledges or climber’s portaledges, providing added flexibility and increased safety because you can get out of the weather more quickly.
They also need to be more comfortable and spacious because you have to spend more time in them given the lack of daylight and shorter days that accompany winter weather. Added vestibule space is convenient for storing gear and keeping snow-covered items outside the living space to cut down on internal condensation, although they do weigh more. They can also be used for cooking and melting snow under cover when conditions outside are poor. Good ventilation is equally important, again to reduce internal condensation and to vent dangerous gasses if you cook or fart inside the tent.
Our preference is for lightweight four-season tents because no one wants to lug a heavy tent all day when climbing a peak, snowshoeing, or backcountry skiing if it’s avoidable.
Can You Use a Three-Season Tent in Winter? You often can if you’re camping below treeline in good weather. Read our how-to guide.
1. Black Diamond FirstLight Tent
The Black Diamond HiLight 2 is a wedge-shaped, freestanding, two-person tent with a single side door. It’s fast and easy to set up with internal crossing poles. An optional front vestibule is also available. Weighing just 3 lbs 10 oz, the HiLight is a single wall, seam-taped siliconized polyester tent that’s large enough for two very friendly people, but lightweight enough for just one person if you prefer to sleep by yourself. Ceiling vents and a beak over the screened side door can be opened for cross ventilation and help reduce internal condensation in winter.
The Black Diamond El Dorado is similar to the BD FirstLight but it’s larger for taller individuals and has more interior space for gear storage. It’s also made with a waterproof/breathable fabric to help vent condensation while front and rear top vents promote greater airflow. Weighing 4 lbs 8 oz, the El Dorado has two crossed aluminum poles that are secured in the tent’s interior. A separate front vestibule is also available.
The NEMO Kunai 2 is a double-walled four-season tent that weighs 3 lbs 14 oz. It has a solid, breathable inner tent for greater warmth, with large pass-through vents that provide excellent airflow. An aggressive brow pole over the front door provides additional clearance inside the front vestibule, which provides a sheltered entrance and damp gear storage. The Kunai 2 is suitable for year-round use, which is an added bonus.
The Marmot Hammer is a wedge-shaped single-wall tent (4 lbs 6 oz) that is similar to the BlackDiamond FirstLight, but has better ventilation options. In addition to a front and rear vent, there are two side vents near the front of the tent, where your head is likely to be positioned to help vent water vapor from your breath and reduce internal condensation. The Hammer also has side guylines that can be adjusted from within the tent, so you can tighten them without having to go outside, a real luxury in nasty weather.
Weighing in at 3 lbs 14 oz, the NEMO Tenshi 2 is a single wall, four-season tent made with a waterproof/breathable fabric to vent internal condensation. It has roof vents, a front and rear window that provide excellent ventilation, and is available with an optional vestibule with a transparent front window for gear storage and cooking in challenging weather. External DAC poles provide a strong shelter while over-sized guy loops let you anchor the tent with backcountry skiing or mountaineering gear instead of stakes.
The MSR Access 2 is a two-person, double-wall tent that weighs 3 lbs 10 oz. It has two doors and two vestibules that provide excellent livability and gear storage, with a freestanding pole architecture so you can set it up quickly, even on snow. A central support frame and carbon fiber tent poles provide a strong structure for snow loading while remaining lightweight. The solid inner tent is breathable but provided enhanced wind protection to keep you warm on cold winter nights.
The Mountain Hardwear Outpost is a double-wall two-person tent with two doors (front and back) and a large front vestibule for storing gear or snow melting in poor conditions. Roof vents, interior mesh doors, multiple door zippers provide high and low ventilation to help reduce internal condensation. A high front brow makes front access easier and helps shed snow. The inner tent is freestanding, while the fly has numerous guy out points so it can be staked out in high winds. Weighing in at 4 lbs 13.5 oz, the Outpost 2 trades weight for improved livability in challenging weather.
The Big Sky Chinook 2P is a freestanding dome-style two-person tent with two doors. The three-pole construction is very strong and storm-worthy, but the tent can be set up with two poles to save weight. The inner tent is available in all mesh or with solid breathable sides to make the tent less drafty in cold and windy weather. Interior vents help prevent internal condensation. Weighing 4 lbs, the Chinook 2P can be set up fly first in rainy weather to keep the inner tent dry. Read our Chinook Review.
The SlingFin CrossBow 2 Four Season is a lightweight two-person tent designed for use in extreme winter weather. Weighing just 4 lbs 6.2 oz, it has a breathable nylon canopy that protects its occupants against spindrift and wind while keeping condensation to a minimum. Poles sleeves, which SlingFin calls a WebTruss help to distribute snow loads across a larger surface area and are much stronger than clip style tents. The pole structure can be further strengthened with trekking poles or ski poles using SlingFin’s outrigger pole system. Two large vestibules and numerous internal pockets provide best-in-class livability, while door vents provide unrestricted cross-tent airflow for excellent condensation management without sacrificing weather protection.
The Black Diamond Beta Light is a bombproof ultralight tarp tricked out for snow travel. It requires two trekking/ski poles to set up and is guyed so you can anchor it with skis, poles, shovel handles, or ices axes. Weighing just 19 oz, it’s steep walls shed snow, wind, and rain without blinking an eye. An optional inner tent is sold separately for bug season, but for winter use, just bring a shovel to dig out a platform to sleep on. Read our Black Diamond Beta Light Review.
When evaluating winter tents, it helps to research the climate conditions you expect to use the tent in, as this will inform the degree of tent pole strength and ventilation required.
Pole Architecture: Many winter tents have several crossed poles, anchored inside or outside the tent walls. Exterior poles that are anchored in sleeves are much stronger than poles that connect to an inner tent using clips or velcro tabs. They’re much more wind resistant and capable of withstanding heavier snow loads.
Ventilation: Important to minimize and reduce internal condensation. This is achieved by keeping the door(s) open when feasible, through peak and side vents, and in some cases through the use of breathable wall fabrics. You can never have too much ventilation in a winter tent, although the addition of doors and zippers can result in increased weight.
Interior Space: Winter tents designed for high alpine mountaineering are often cramped because weight savings are so critical when you have to climb many thousands of feet to reach your destination. When selecting a winter tent be realistic about your length and width requirements, particularly when choosing a two-person wedge-style tent, as livability can be compromised.
Number of Doors: Tents designed to hold two occupants are more comfortable and convenient to use if they have two doors and vestibules because you can come and go without waking your tent partner. Dome style tents often provide greater covered vestibule storage, which can make a significant difference in livability.
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