The difference between three-season and four-season camping tents seems to be pretty self-explanatory, but what does it really mean in terms of features? And, what’s the worst that could happen camping in a three-season tent in winter? We’ve checked, so you don’t have to.
Three-season tents: light and versatile
Most three-season tents feature a double-wall construction consisting of a tent body made out of light mesh fabric and a sturdy rainfly to go over. This design keeps these tents extremely breathable and light, as well as versatile. In summer, they can be pitched without the rainfly to provide a perfect bug-free shelter without restricting air flow, and with a properly tensioned rainfly, they can withstand pretty harsh conditions including heavy rainfall and even a dusting of snow.
There are three questions to ask yourself before choosing your three-season tent:
- How much walking will I do with the tent? (More miles = lighter tent)
- How comfortable do I want to be? (More comfort = heavier tent)
- Do I expect extreme conditions, such as gale force winds and snowfall?
The answer to the first two questions can be imagined on a sliding scale from light to heavy, or from minimalist to comfortable. The third question is where we cut to the chase.
Three-season tents are not designed to handle prolonged periods of harsh weather. The light fabrics don’t keep the cold out very well, and although that can be remedied with the right sleeping bag and mat, the warmest sleeping pad will not prevent the wind from tearing the tent fabric, or the snow from collapsing its structure. If these are conditions you are expecting, a four-season tent is a must.
Four-season tents: a safe shelter
The name is misleading: four-season tents are specifically designed with winter conditions in mind and until recently, they were so heavy that nobody would consider using one when not absolutely necessary. In recent years, technological advancements have made them significantly lighter, and the best ones can be used as year-round shelters. Still, they allow less air flow and are heavier in weight, given the materials are more robust and the designs tend to be roomier to fit all the winter gear. As a result, most serious year-round outdoorists will opt for having two tents in their gear stash.
A typical four-season tent sits lower to the ground than its three-season counterpart, allowing it to withstand strong winds, and if it’s classed as a mountaineering shelter or an expedition tent, to provide a safe haven for sleeping at altitude.
Choosing between a double-wall and single-wall design is a question of weight and comfort. A double-wall design allows for splitting the weight of the shelter between two people, but is significantly heavier than a single-wall option. The surface of the mesh is significantly reduced in a four-season tent with a double-wall design. It traps more heat while still being extremely breathable.
A single-wall design is a minimalist option chosen by mountaineers for whom every extra pound can be the difference between success or failure in reaching the summit safely. A single-wall expedition tent might not keep you comfortable, but it will keep you alive and allow you to move quickly through difficult terrain. If you’re looking for a little bit of coziness on a winter backcountry break, opt for a double-wall design with a spacious vestibule — something that is typically missing in an expedition tent.
In short, it’s not the season that determines what kind of shelter is right for you, but the weather.
Even in the dead of winter, a cold, clear night can be spent comfortably in a three-season tent, while at altitude, a spring snowstorm might call for the sturdiness of a four-season one. Speaking from experience, there are not many things more unnerving than waking up with the fabric of your tent firmly pressed to your face by the weight of fresh snow. Staying comfortable in winter is a matter of safety, so choose your gear wisely for the best adventure.