Winter tents and shelters for mountaineering, winter backpacking, and backcountry skiing tours need to be stronger and wind-worthy for camping in exposed windy terrain that is subject to heavy snow loads. Some are single-walled since they’re only intended for winter use when insect protection is not needed. Our preference is for lightweight four-season tents and tarp shelters because no one wants to lug a heavy tent all day when climbing a peak, snowshoeing, or backcountry skiing if it’s avoidable.
The Black Diamond First Light is a lightweight 2-person single-wall tent. Weighing just 3 lbs 1 oz (seam-sealed), it’s made with NanoShield single-wall fabric and has a 70-denier polyester floor. It has a front door and a small rear window, with zippered mesh panels at both ends to provide ventilation and spindrift protection. Crossed internal poles make setup fast and easy and provide a strong structure capable of withstanding high winds and snow loads. Seam sealing is recommended. A separate front vestibule is also available. Read our First Light Review.
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. Read our MSR Access 1 Review.
The Black Diamond Beta Light is a bombproof ultralight tarp tricked out for snow travel. Newly updated, it features a seam-taped no-stretch polyester fly and an insect-proof mesh skirt, enabling four-season use. 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 23 oz, its steep walls shed snow, wind, and rain without blinking an eye.
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, two-person, 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. A front vestibule is also available.
The Sierra Designs Convert 2 is a freestanding 2-person tent with a front door and optional vestibule. The three-pole construction is very strong and storm-worthy but the tent is made with lightweight materials to save weight. The inner tent is spacious with plenty of room for internal gear storage and has good ventilation thanks to a mesh rear window and screened front door. Weighing 4 lbs 2 oz, the Convert 2 can also be set up fly first in rainy weather to keep the inner tent dry. An add-on vestibule is also available for additional gear storage. Read our Convert 3 review.
The Mountain Laurel Designs SuperMid is a single wall, floorless pyramid tarp with a square 9’2″ x 9’2″ footprint with a peak height of 69″. Pyramid tarps are bombproof in wind as long as they’re securely anchored with deadmen in winter. Weighing 26 oz, the SuperMid can sleep up to four people or it can be set up as a protected group kitchen. It has one oversized peak vent for ventilation, a center door zip, and 16 guylines including 8 perimeter guylines outfitted with linelocs. It can be pitched with two ski/trekking poles, lashed together. While it is available in DCF, we recommend getting the silnylon model because snow slides off it better.
The Black Diamond HiLight 2 is a single-wall tent with very good ventilation. An air tunnel inside the roof of the tent helps pull out moisture while the tent’s freestanding architecture makes it easy to set up just about anywhere. While it is sized for two people we think it’s a lot more comfortable for one, with space for your gear inside. It has a side door (a separate vestibule is available) and a half-sized rear window. Weighing 3 lbs 12 oz, the HiLight 2 is made with Sil/PU coated polyester which does not sag or stretch when it gets wet and is fully waterproof and factory seam-taped. For two people, we prefer the HiLight 3 which has two doors. Vestibules are also available for both models and significantly boost livability and gear storage. Read our HiLight 2 Review.
The SlingFin CrossBow 2 Four Season is a lightweight two-person tent designed for use in extreme winter weather. Weighing 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. Read our CrossBow 2 Review.
The Tarptent Scarp 1 is a spacious, double-wall tent with two side vestibule doors. While it is designed for one person, it is in fact wide enough to fit two. Weighing 48.25 ounces, the Scarp comes with a single arched tent pole and can be pitched fly first before the inner tent. The inner is available in mesh or solid fabric. Additional cross poles can be attached in windy conditions. The corners are supported with short carbon fiber struts so that they stand vertically. Read our Scarp 1 review.
When evaluating winter tents and tarp shelters, it helps to research the climate conditions, particularly snow loads and wind speeds, you expect to use the tent in, as this will inform the degree of tent pole strength and ventilation required.
Tent or Tarp?
Tents are almost always heavier than tarps, but they offer a lot more comfort and protection because they have floors. They can also be much easier to set up if they’re freestanding so you can get out of the weather quickly and change into dry clothes. While tarps are substantially lighter, they can take a while to set up since you have to freeze your guy-out points in place in snow, a process known as sintering. This can take 20-30 minutes, during which time you’ll get much colder. You have to decide which option is better for your needs.
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. For tarps, most require one or two poles to set up, although ones with high ceilings may require that you lash two trekking poles together, usually with a flexible ski strap, to attain the proper height.
Guy Out Points
It’s important to secure your tent or tarp to the snow when you set it up so it doesn’t blow away and so the walls don’t collapse under wind pressure. Winter tents typically come with gear loops instead of guylines for this purpose so you can use gear to anchor your tent, like skis, poles, ice axes, etc. If you use snow stakes, it’s important to freeze these in place by packing snow all around them and letting it harden. If there’s no snow on the ground, you’ll have a very hard time pounding regular tent stakes into the frozen ground.
It is important to minimize and reduce internal condensation. This is achieved by keeping tent 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 or shelter because you’re sleeping on top of water, frozen water. Look for tent doors that have mesh screens backing them, as this lets you keep a door open at night for ventilation but blocks snow from blowing into the tent.
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. Consider purchasing an add-on vestibule if available because they make a good “gear room” for you to store wet or snow-covered gear or to cook and melt snow under (with proper ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning) if you have to wait out a storm.
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.
Winter tarps do not have floors in order to save weight. Most people dig into the snow with an avalanche shovel to create “furniture” for sleeping or sitting and to increase the amount of usable space under the tarp. Some people, even cut out the floors in their freestanding tents, including the Black Diamond First Light, for the same purpose, because it vastly improves livability.
DCF (Dyneema) Tents and Tarps
While tarp shelters made with DCF (Dyneema Composite Fabrics) are lighter-weight than ones made with silnylon or polyester, snow slides better down the sides of silnylon and polyester shelters because they are slicker, reducing the weight of snow loading on the tent poles/ski poles holding up your tent or tarp. In addition, DCF tarps are much bulkier to pack making them less desirable in winter when backpack space is at such a premium.
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Have you ever gotten your hands on an Ultamid? Was looking at that tent to use with my friend for winter backpacking and for with my significant other during 3 season use. Would love to know your thoughts!
First off, you’ll probably be pretty unhappy with an Ultamid 2 for two people. (Also, Dyneema isn’t as slippery as conventional fabrics like silnylon for shedding snow.) The slanted walls make livability a challenge, unless you dig a deep pit under it. I’ve always used 2 person mids because of the livability issue. For 2 people, you still only have one door. But that’s a problem with most mids except one from Seek Outside. Let’s say you get an Ultamid 4 then. When you add the inner you get a tent that costs over $1500 and weighs over 3 lbs. Save your money and buy an X-mid 2 or a BD Beta Light. Much better in so many ways.
I swear Phil, you’re an invaluable resource and could spend all afternoon picking your brain on this stuff! Have you gotten a chance to look at the new dipole 2 by tarp tent? That also intrigued my mind.
Thanks for this list Phil. A “well curated” selection. For winter tents I guess it’s “OK” to have the older design of an inner tent that must be set up and THEN have the fly put on because most snow (unless very wet) won’t bother the inner tent.
Only the TT SCARP 1 can be set up with inner already attached to the fly. I have the SCARP 2 BUT with the X-ing Poles shortened and run INSIDE the fly and supported by the apex of the “Pitch Loc” corner struts, a very strong setup. The SCARP 2 can accommodate 3 “consenting adults” head-to-toe.
The SCARP 1 is a TT Moment DW on steroids. I love my Moment DW for solo winter camping.
What is the advantage of a double wall shelter for a winter tent if the inner wall is virtually solid? It’s always been my understanding that the virtue of a mesh inner and solid rainfly is that moisture will pass through the mesh and accumulate on the inside of the rainfly, thereby keeping it off the parts of the tent one would come into contact with. If the inner is solid, wouldn’t the moisture just accumulate on the solid inner? If so, what is the point of a double wall? Not trying to be snarky, this is an honest question as I’m not seeing the advantage of the double wall Access over the single wall First Light for this issue.
A solid inner is for wind/draft protection. They tend to be highly breathable and let water vapor through. The advantage over a First Light is that you’re not soaked with condensation if you touch the side walls. I sleep with the first light door open to let water vapor escape.
Very tempted by the First Light, but where I live it is not always dry or cold enough in local mountains in winter and as the tent isn’t waterproof; rather the canopy is constructed with a water resistant, breathable NanoShield fabric (as per BD). Heavy rain and you get wet as I understand it. The MSR a lot pricier, but waterproof. Still, for true winter or up high I think this could work well!
The thing to look at is the FirstLights hydrostatic head which is a measure of its waterproofness. The canopy is 1500mm and the floor is 3000 mm, which is better than a lot of three-season tents in the market. The reason they say its not waterproof is because the seams are not sealed. I’ve sealed mine and been in plenty of torrential rainstorms with that tent and never gotten wet from leaks once. It is a single wall tent though and ventilation is a challenge, but if you can stand the internal condensation, its a great tent that’s very easy to set up and freestanding.