Most tents on the current outdoor market are rated as 3 season tents, while only a small portion of them are rated as 4 season. If you are a casual camper who mostly camps in ideal conditions, then a 3 season tent would probably be enough for you. However, if you enjoy camping in winter conditions or are consistently exposed to high winds and strong rains, then you may want to upgrade to a 4 season tent. But what exactly are the differences between the two? We’ve broken down what it means to be a 3 season tent and what a 4 season tent is, as well as a comparison of a 3 season vs. 4 season tent.
What is a 3 Season Tent?
As the name implies, 3 season tents are designed for use during three seasons a year – specifically spring, summer, and fall. Most tents on the market are rated as 3 season and are enough for casual campers who experience typical camping conditions. This means it would offer enough protection for light wind, rain, and even light snow if there isn’t much accumulation.
But mostly these tents are designed for use during warmer conditions, so their goal is to provide as much ventilation as possible. You’ll find that they have lots of mesh on the canopy with large windows and doors for circulation. The rainfly should be robust enough to protect the tent and its occupants during a rain storm, but should also have vents to release heat and condensation.
Related Post: If you want to learn about if you can winterize your 3 season tent to make it usable for winter conditions, read can you use a three season tent in winter?
Three season tents vary greatly in capacity, weight, features, ventilation, height, and so much more. Capacity ranges from small 1 person tents to large 10 person tents that are more like small cabins. Weight can be as small as a couple pounds for an ultralight backpacking tent, while some larger tents can weigh upwards of 25+ pounds. Weight is obviously one of the most important factors when it comes to choosing a backpacking tent, but matters much less for car campers who don’t have to worry about carrying gear for more than a few yards.
As for features, there’s a large variety of included design aspects like screen rooms, vestibules, storage pockets, and more. Ventilation is of the utmost importance if you plan on camping in warmer conditions, and height is also a factor to consider. The taller the tent, the more headspace you’ll have. On the other hand, taller tents are harder to heat and are more likely to catch wind like a sail.
There’s also a lot of specifications that 3-season tents will have in common. For example, they typically have a minimal waterhead rating, which is essentially a measure of how waterproof the tent material is. The lower end of the range is 1200mm to be considered high enough to work effectively, and most 3-season tents will run between 1200mm-1500mm. Tent poles made of either aluminum or fiberglass are common, with aluminum being the preferred material for durability. The tent material will also usually be thinner, especially in lightweight backpacking tents. All of these contribute to an overall cheaper tent, although prices can vary greatly depending on brand, size, capacity, and durability. Some tents are definitely stronger than others but you’re more likely to pay more as quality increases.
What is a 4 Season Tent?
The nomenclature itself is a little misleading when it comes to 4 season tents since they aren’t actually intended for use in all four seasons. They’re really built to withstand winter conditions and temperatures, and some of these features prevent them from being effective in warm weather conditions. That means 4 season tents are generally only used in winter months despite its name. They’re best for harsh wind, rain, snow, and cold temperatures, with features that aid in keeping the user warm and dry.
The first thing you will notice about a 4 season tent is the lack of mesh on the canopy. Since mesh lets out precious warmth, it’s best to be excluded on winterized tents. The rain fly will either extend all the way to the ground (or even have a snow skirt), or be non-existent. The rainfly is just a piece of material at risk of getting caught flapping in the wind, and 4-season tents need to be more secure than that. The existing wall is typically double thickness, and vents are only for releasing condensation, not for letting in a cross breeze. Some 4 season tents include tent stakes that you can use in snow, but if they don’t tent stakes for sand will function really well in the snow.
The poles on a 4 season tent should be made of a high quality metal such as aluminum or DAC Featherlight since they have to be able to withstand stronger forces from wind and rain. A lot of newer tents utilize a J-hook assembly for quick set up, but winterized tents will have traditional sleeves for added strength for the poles. This makes set up time slightly slower but it’s worth it. You’ll find more guyout points on the tent so you can secure it even more, and a lower height so that strong winds shoot over and around a contoured shape.
Essentially, 4 season tents are designed to be stronger and more durable for extreme weather conditions, but this typically comes at a cost. Your basic 4 season tent will be more expensive than a 3 season, but they also vary greatly in price. We were able to find a 4 season tent under $200, but most higher quality tents for serious winter campers will run for significantly more money.
What is Considered a 4 Season Tent?
Based on the description of a 4-season tent above, here are some suggestions for 4 season tents:
- Mountain Hardwear Trango 2-person, 3-person, and 4-person
- The North Face VE 25 Tent
- MSR Remote 2
- The North Face Assault 2-person and 3-person
So far we’ve only discussed modern camping tents and their seasonality, but it’s worth mentioning canvas tents. These heavy duty tents are more traditionally in shape and design, and they are some of the most weather resistant tents money could buy. They’re a bit more expensive, but their durability and longevity are well worth it, especially if you camp year-round. Check out the best canvas tents to shop around for ideas. You can also check out the best bell tents, which are a specific shape of canvas tent that are ideal for glamping.
3 Season vs. 4 Season Tent
Where a 4 season tent falls short in warmer weather, 3 season tents thrive on ventilation and mesh. They’re typically taller, have better air flow, and are usually significantly cheaper because they sacrifice strength and warmth for affordability and ease of setup. On the other hand, a 4 season tent will be shorter, have a more contoured shape, no mesh, and thicker tent materials.
For a visual example, see the two tents pictured below. The black/neon tent is the Nemo Wagontop and it made our list for best tents with a screen room. It is is a 6 person, 3 season tent, with a peak height of 80 inches (6ft. 6in.) and lots of mesh. It’s tall, has lots of circulation, and would catch wind with any gusts over 15 mph.
The all blue/red tent is a Mountain Hardwear ACI 3 and it made our list for best tents for high winds. The max height is only 41 inches and the shape is very contoured to let wind fly over and around instead of catching on the walls. It has a single wall construction with no rainfly and no mesh. You can see how the Nemo would be an ideal 3 season tent while the Mountain Hardwear would be an ideal 4 season tent for winter camping.
How do you know which tent type is right for you? We recommend a 3 season tent for casual campers who don’t typically camp in high winds, snow, or heavy consistent rains. Your average three season tents will provide enough protection for basic conditions that you may experience.
If you want to camp in winter conditions such as snow, gusty winds, and extreme cold temperatures, then it would be worth purchasing a 4 season tent. If you do purchase a 4 season tent, keep in mind that it will be better used as a second tent specifically for winter camping, and it would be worth having an additional 3 season tent for ruse during warmer weather.
What is a 5 Season Tent?
If you’ve ever heard the term, five season tent, you may be scratching your head. After all, there are only four seasons. But 5-season tents are considered to be extreme weather tents that you could use for high altitude mountaineering and summiting massive peaks like Everest. Read more about 5 season tents here.
Which One Do You Need – 3, 4, or 5 Season?
When considering the type of tent suitable for a winter camping expedition, the spectrum ranges from 3-season tents to the more specialized 4 and even 5-season tents. A lot rides on the specific conditions one anticipates.
Starting with 3-season tents, these shelters are typically designed for the milder conditions of spring, summer, and fall. They offer good ventilation and are generally lighter, but their construction is not intended to withstand heavy snowfall or severe winds. For casual winter camping in less harsh conditions, they might suffice, but it’s a bit of a gamble if the weather takes a turn.
On the other end of the spectrum, 4-season tents are engineered for all-year use, especially the colder months. That being said, most of them aren’t ideal for use in warm conditions (like summer time) because they lack ventilation and headroom. Otherwise, these tents offer robust construction, using more durable materials and poles. They are designed to bear the load of heavy snow and provide resistance against fierce winds. Ventilation can be adjusted to balance the need for airflow against retaining heat. In my experience, they are a sound investment for those committed to camping in winter, providing a more reliable and safer shelter.
Then there’s the rare breed of 5-season tents, also known as expedition tents. These are specifically engineered for extreme conditions like high-altitude mountaineering. While these provide the ultimate level of protection, they may be overkill for the average winter camper and come with a price tag that matches their capabilities.
Choosing the right tent ultimately depends on the conditions you’ll face, your level of experience, and how much weight you’re willing to carry. Balancing these factors will lead you to the shelter that best suits your winter camping adventure.
|Season Tent||Ideal Conditions||Pros||Cons||Recommended Use|
|3-season||Spring, Summer, Fall||Lightweight, Good Ventilation||Not for heavy snow or strong winds||Milder winter conditions, casual camping|
|4-season||Winter||Durable, Can Handle Snow and Wind||Heavier, Less ventilation||Serious winter camping in snowy conditions|
|5-season||Extreme Conditions & High Altitude||Ultimate protection, Robust construction||Heaviest, Most expensive||Extreme expeditions, high-altitude|