Choosing the right tent for the conditions is essential; 4-season tents can be overly cumbersome and some lack suitable ventilation, which is crucial in the summer. 3-season tents are often too flimsy and excessively ventilated for cold winters.
I’ve seen a trend recently where tent manufacturers are labelling their tents as 4-season when they lack the features that I and most mountaineers would consider essential.
Here is my quick guide to the difference between 3 and 4-season tents, what to look out for and whether you really need a 4-season tent at all.
Features of a Typical 3-Season Tent
3-season tents usually have these features:
Lightweight – Summer campers usually want something light and small. I always carry less equipment on a summer trip than a winter one, so I don’t need a huge tent.
Thinner Groundsheet and Flysheet – There’s no need to bulk out the material on summer tents that get less wear and tear.
Ventilation – I know from my camping experience in the UK that a hot tent is uncomfortable, and I feel that the more mesh there is, the better, as it improves airflow. Also, the external flysheet shouldn’t touch the ground as a slight gap improves the airflow further. Airflow is crucial for summer comfort and for managing spring/autumn condensation.
Tunnel and Coffin Tents – These tents have poles that don’t cross over each other and the structure is less rigid; that’s fine because the wind is lighter in summer, and there’s little risk of snow collapsing the tent.
Size – 3-season tents are typically smaller, have smaller vestibules and the design often doesn’t maximise headroom.
Darker Colours – Very few 3-season tents are bright yellow or orange.
Sleeves and Clips – I’m seeing more and more summer tents where the sleeves (that the poles go through), or part of them, have been replaced with plastic clips. This reduces the weight and makes pitching easier and quicker.
Guylines – 3-season tents often have fewer and less sturdy guylines/ropes.
Single or Double Wall Construction – Most summer tents have the classic two walls, but in recent years, single-wall tents have increased in popularity. These allow air to flow into the tent to remove the condensation but may not be suitable for winter use.
Typical 3-Season Tent
Below is a photo of my OEX Phoxx 2 tent which is a typical summer tent.
Note the poles, they don’t cross over each other. Also, there are only 4 guylines and a lack of headroom:
Features of a Typical 4-Season Tent
There are plenty of manufacturers who market their 3-season tents as being suitable for 4 seasons, a practice that is dangerous in my opinion.
Here’s what to look for in a typical 4-season tent:
Ventilation – I’ve found that too much ventilation and the tent doesn’t retain heat from the body. Too little ventilation and condensation can be problematic, something I’ve seen first-hand on calm, no-wind days. Good quality 4-season tents will have vents that can be closed or opened as desired by the occupant. I’ve seen tents with zipper vents and also some with drawstring vents, both appear effective at managing airflow, heat retention and condensation.
Flysheet to the Ground – The outer flysheet should touch the ground to stop snow from blowing into the vestibule areas. I’ve been out on windy wintry days and experienced buckets of snow getting under the flysheet, so this is a crucial feature.
Thicker Flysheet – This blocks more of the wind and on most 4-season tents it will be thicker and stronger.
Dome Shaped – Most 4-season tents are dome-shaped or at the least, have poles that cross over each other so the tent is free standing and not entirely relying on the guylines. This shape maximises headroom, improves structural integrity and stops snow or wind from collapsing the tent.
Thicker Poles – These improve the tent’s strength, which is essential due to the more adverse winter weather. Most winter tents will have more numerous poles as well.
More Guylines – Good quality 4-season tents have extra guylines and a single guyline may attach to several points on the tent to improve rigidity further.
Larger Tents and Vestibules – The vestibule areas of most 4-season tents are larger to accommodate the extra equipment mountaineers carry with them, such as big rucksacks, ski boots, crampons, puffy jackets etc. The tents usually have more headroom as well.
Brighter Colours – These help mountaineers be seen in the winter. Many summer campers like to stealth camp, so they prefer darker colours.
Double Wall Construction – Almost all 4-season tents are double-walled as this helps to control condensation and heat.
Typical 4-Season Tent
The 4-season tent below has a rigid pole structure, snow flaps to stop snow and wind ingress and a larger porch at the front:
Most 4-Season Tents Aren’t Insulated
A common misunderstanding is that 4-season tents should have insulated walls, similar to sleeping bags or house walls.
Due to the extra weight, this is impractical for most tents that are carried by one person.
The environment inside a winter tent is controlled by managing the wind, ventilation, condensation, snow ingress etc, rather than by having thick insulation material.
To keep warm, winter campers rely on their sleeping pads and bags, which are usually well insulated.
Is it Safe to Use a 3-Season Tent in Winter?
Many people, myself included, use 3-season tents in the winter.
I’ve only had one bad experience in winter and that was on a windy day when snow and wind were blowing in under the outer flysheet of the tent and it made the environment inside uncomfortable.
I’ve been out camping in snowy conditions on numerous occasions and I’ve found 3-season tents are just fine provided they:
- Don’t have tons of ventilation mesh.
- Have a pole structure that stops the material from bending under a snow load.
- Have enough space to store equipment.
- Aren’t used in horrendous winter mountain weather.
Of course, a 4-season tent would be safer in harsher conditions but I generally only winter camp on calmer days.
About Daniel Woodley
From walking along beaches and kayaking down rivers to making his way up mountains and even jumping out of planes, Daniel has a love of the outdoors but scrambling is his real passion.
Daniel Woodley aka The Bald Scrambler