“What is the difference between a four-season tent and a three-season tent?” It’s a good question because the distinction is blurry. Moreover the phrase “four-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 three-season ones are wind resistance and the ability to withstand heavy snowfall. Consequently, winter tents typically come with an extra rigid exoskeleton and have steeply angled sides.
The Mountain Hardware Stronghold 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 windbreak, 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 are 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-wall tent made from a breathable fabric called EPIC and it weighs well under three pounds
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. 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 Black Diamond, 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?
Last updated 2016
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.
Hi – do you have any more imformation on how you do this? Thanks
I just now saw your question. I have stuck with my square tarp, only 4 corner pegs and 4 corner poles for four people. Cooking on a tin can stove hanging on a chimney that is also the center pole for my tarp pitch. This outfit is the only true four season shelter I have seen. The 4 sides of the parp pitch can be all raised in hot weather or all 4 sides held tight to the ground in a blizzard.
I’d like to say that here in the Pacific Northwest it would be risky to depend on it to just snow and to not rain/sleet at any time and at any elevation. So carrying a tent that leaks in order to save a couple of pounds isn’t a great idea.
I use a nicely priced REI Arete ASL 2 which is a 3-4 season tent in the winter and on snow. It’s not a lightweight tent at just under 6 pounds but I seldom go great distances when snow camping. A very few miles … far enough to get away from roads and commonly-used trails, so weight is not an issue.
It sheds wind, rain, sleet and snow with ease, has enough venting to keep the inside dry, although after a couple of days of NW rain the inside of any near-solid-wall tent will be somewhat wet. I’ve never had it drippy though.
I like having a floor and it has a good sized vestibule. I have always used it solo. My wife doesn’t snow camp and all my friends snore so it’s best alone.
I teach survival and we use nothing more than a tarp system year round. Yes, I have my students use a ground cloth. They tamp the floor with snowshoes, then place ground cloth and ISO mat inside. They seal the sides by burying them in snow. This increases the shelter temps by 10 to 15 degrees. Sometimes more. They will stay in these types of shelters up to -35 degrees with little change in equipment. If conditions warrant, I for-go tarps and build snow shelters. They are cheap and very affective.
I have had this tent the terra nova voyager for just under a year now mostly took out out in fair weather I decided to camp on top of Pen-y-fan 11/04/15 the wind condition’s were moderate to strong at the time’s but with this being rated a 4 season tent I was confident it would withstand the weather being thrown at it , but boy was I wrong the arch pole over the door kept being blown back onto the tent and me inside all night despite being pitched correctly the result in the morning was a broken pole and where the red pole sit’s over the two blue horizontal poles it had rubbed holes in both pole sleeves and the stitching inside was tearing through the inner tent where the pole sleeves attach, now I cannot insert the poles through the sleeves without them coming through the holes . I contacted terra nova about this they were useless after many emails and pictures of the damage were sent I had to send it off to them, 2 weeks for them to look at it and after they make a dissension another 2-3 weeks for them to repair it at my expense when it is clearly a design fault as there is no reinforcement protection where the poles overlap on the front of the tent but there is protection on the rear. Truly disappointed in there poor customer service I expected more form a British company I have lost faith in there product’s and will buy a Hilleberg for a better experience .
I like mids for winter camping. For example:
A floor isn’t necessary. And I use a bivy and quilt.
I’ve used a Golite Hex3, MLD Duomid, MLD Trails tar and now onto a Tarptent Scarp 1 with crossing poles. If/when the Scarp dies it will be replaced with another Scarp I suspect, although the nigor wikiup (essentially a Hex3) might just pip it at time of purchase.
Have two “3 1/2” season tents from Tarptent that I have “winterized’.
1.TT Moment DW-> Winterized with the optional crossing pole run BENEATH the fly by shortening it 5”. For details go to Backpacking Light website to the “Gear” forum and then to “The Tarptent Thread” to see photos and text on this mod.
2. TT Scarp 2-> Same mod except I took the outside grommeted webbing strips and sewed them to the apex of the corner carbon fiber struts for great strength. For photos and text details on this mod go to Backpacking Light to the “Winter Hiking” forum and search for “Winterized Scarp 2”.
With both tents I sewed 4 fly hem stake loops to the fly (2 per side) to stake down the fly in high winds and heavy snow. Flapping is hard on the fly and keeps you up st night. Heavy snow sliding off the fly builds up and pushes the fly and tent inward unless the fly hem is staked out.
Also I pre-prepared 4 guy lines for each tent, 2 for the sides and 2 for the ends. They have plastic LineLoc length adjusting sliders and snap hooks for the tent ends. They are color coded, gold for the side guys, red for the end guys.All this is essential for fast deployment of the guy lines in bad weather.
I can’t see the need for anything more than an old bin liner and just manning up.
… I would love a bin liner.. usually I just have to make do with a copy of “the Sun” and some string.
The first thing I do when someone talks the “tarp in conditions bs” is laugh. You are either broke, cheap or dumb and you become a liability to your party for being any of those. It is very worth it to purchase a decent 4 season. I have gone through a couple now and my lady and I finally bought a Hileberg. Little overkill for us but I’ll never go back lol. Sure do a tarp setup if shaky shelters are your thing or just Get yourself a decent tent and ENJOY your time instead of spending it jerry-rigging. Just retired a Marmot Thor 2p, too many patches and our dog is getting big so the Namatj GT 3 is our go to now. The Thor was great for the price tho (600$) I think and was put through the ringer. We used it everywhere from 13,500k down to the desert riding moto & several storms in between. I’m not a hiker anymore tho, we are BackCountry ski/snowboarding, Whitewater kayakers and enduro moto enthusiasts at this point and I’m usually splitting weight with Nicole. In my opinion if your buying a 4-season with the intent to use in the winter, (only reason to buy one) your sleep and experience at night is much better in a bomber tent. I like my sleep and not having to adjust a tarp or cheap tent at night when the shit comes at me. And then again I’m not out there just to build a shelter, I’m spending my time with my friends, lady, dog and preparing for the sports and or adventure to be had tomorrow. Sorry for coming off a dic* but had a Jerry pull the tarp shelter couple weeks ago in CO and his attitude was shit all next day from poor sleep (he did rig correctly). I also preferred a tunnel type tent for one man (or woman) pitching and strength. Nicole much prefers her sleep in the Hileberg and she does tent and gear setup for us a majority of the time now while I cook and build heat source if an option. They can be pricey with and w/out a prodeal but they pose remarkable craftsmanship down to the last detail and have slept us through nasty ice & snow storms but that’s to be expected as people take them to Antarctica ??. have a good time and buy/support a local mountaineering shop. ??????