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Many first-time campers don’t know the distinctions between a 4-season tent and a 3-season tent. Yet, a world of features separates the two.
A 3-season tent, as the name implies, is designed for use in the summer, spring, and fall. While a 4-season tent is technically useful in all seasons but will shine in the winter.
Of course, that’s a high-level comparison of the two, and there are a lot of factors to look at when deciding which type of tent you’ll need for winter camping.
So, let’s break it down!
Four-Season Tents Vs Three-Season Tents
As we stated above, there are some important differences between 3 and 4 season tents. Especially when it comes to winter camping. Let’s first look at some of the major differences.
Tentmakers design 3-season tents to be as light as possible so you can carry them with relative ease up mountains, down sandy beaches, and everywhere in-between.
Their thin, breathable walls let air pass through easily, cooling everything inside and preventing condensation from forming in the interior on their water-resistant fabric.
Hikers and campers love them for the convenience they offer. And if you’ve ever climbed a mountain that’s more than 2000 meters above sea level, you would be thanking your lucky stars that you had the good sense to bring a tent that didn’t weigh you down for protection you didn’t need.
Three-season tents are a favorite of overnight backpackers and novice campers. Thanks to their hollow poles, their thin, all-weather fabrics, and their mesh parts, you can pack them without breaking a sweat.
By comparison, a 4-season tent has thicker textiles that are more weather-resistant, and its poles are much more substantial, designed to stand up under the heavier weight of snow.
If you’re planning to camp in the winter, you need a battle plan against the harsh weather. Four-season tents are the only way you can survive in below-zero temperatures, and for this reason, they very rarely feature mesh material or have open slits on their sides and tops.
Four-season tents are designed to keep you warm inside, and they will do so even if it makes them a bad option for the beach or on summer hikes. Many 4-season tents feature more than one layer of material to insulate you from the cold. They’re airtight, meaning that air will not be coming in or out of the tents once you zip up their doors and windows from the outside world. Their overall design makes them more cumbersome than 3-season tents, and you will notice it when on a significant mountain hike.
Should You Buy A 3-Season Tent?
While you can use a 3-season tent for an overnight stay in a chilly place, unless it’s snowing outside, you’re not going to have a good time.
A lot of nuances exist, however, in choosing between a 3-season tent and a 4-season tent. It’s not just whether you’ll be camping out in the cold or not.
First, as you’re planning your trip, take note of the elevation, weather, and temperature of the spot where you’re looking to camp. Will you only experience light snow? How cold does it get at night?
A 3-season tent offers plenty of protection for light snow and inclement weather–with all-weather coatings and waterproofing technology, along with rain flies for added protection. Most camping-equipment manufacturers also offer third-party accessories to improve your 3-season tent experiences, such as over-top tarps, tent footprints, and so on.
Second, consider your budget. It takes a lot more research and development to perfect a 4-season tent, not to mention all the extra material and manufacturing processes that go into finishing one. Four-season tents are typically much more expensive than 3-season tents, sometimes double or even triple their price (though you can find some incredible deals on 4-season tents, which we show you in our best budget 4 season tents guide).
Finally, think about your place in the camping universe. Camping in the winter is generally for more experienced hikers who know how to handle the contingencies that camping in heavy snow might bring.
If you’re only starting, consider locations that are more hospitable such as lakesides and low mountains, because going too far too soon might cost you more than your comfort.
Picking Out A Great 3-Season Tent
If you’re camping on the beach, by the lake, or on a small mountain where there’s only light snow, a 3-season tent is the right one for you.
While it’s true that you shouldn’t base your purchasing decision on one camping trip alone–since a tent can be a long-term investment–3-season tents are far more versatile than their 4-season counterparts.
They will offer you more flexibility, and it’s safer to err by buying a 3-season tent than buying a 4-season tent. You will have far more uses for a 3-season tent, and you will recognize each one by reading through this buying guide.
Here are the main things to look for when buying a 3-season tent.
How Many People Are Staying Inside?
One of the first things you should consider when choosing a tent is how many people you plan to host. Will your significant other, a few friends, or your entire family be staying inside the tent?
Even though camping by its nature is a rugged activity, you need to choose a tent with more than enough room for everyone, as the numbers you see on a tent’s product description can sometimes be slightly exaggerated. Tents need to be small and easy to carry, so when a company says that a tent can fit two people, it could be technically accurate, but whether or not they’re comfortable is another story.
What’s more, as a camper, you’ll need to carry a lot of luggage when heading out. You will need space for your backpack and any other gear you have. A tent for two people might end up fitting just one since your belongings might eat up a good chunk of the space reserved for your companion. This sad reality is especially true when it’s raining because you can’t leave anything out.
Chose a tent that is rated at least one size bigger. What this means is if you plan to camp with two people, use a 3 person tent. This will allow enough room for both campers to sleep comfortably along with their gear.
How Much Can You Carry?
Even though manufacturers go to great lengths to make sure their 3-season tents are as light as can be, the more features they cram in, the heavier the tents will be.
If you’re hiking through the forest or up a high mountain, a few extra pounds will start to feel like a ton. Considering the weight of your tent before making a purchase is always good practice.
Ultra-light tents are the best option as far as weight goes. They have many features such as rain flies, vestibules, multiple doors, and indoor compartments, without putting on extra pounds. However, most ultra-light tents are made of a single weatherproof exterior and will offer minimal protection against condensation and the cold.
A tent’s minimum trail weight and its packed weight are two different things. The packed weight of your tent refers to its total weight with all its accessories included, like the poles, the rainfly, and the tent bag itself, while the minimum trail weight only refers to the poles, rainfly, and the tent body. You can share the total weight of your tent with a friend by splitting up the pieces amongst each other if you find it too cumbersome to carry alone.
Consider the weight of the tent and how you’re going to be using it before purchasing it! If you absolutely need a heavier tent, consider splitting up the pieces with a partner to make carrying it around easier.
Your Comfort Level
When it comes to 3-season tents, comfort is king. Four-season tents make a lot of compromises to keep you warm, most of the time at the cost of your convenience. Three-season tents are well-ventilated, built with advanced materials, and engineered to be lightweight, so you’ll be comfortable hauling them around.
Aside from tent weight as we mentioned above, three main factors come into play when it comes to tent comfort.
- Tent Dimensions: Namely the total floor space, the shape, and the height. If you’re on the taller side, you need to pick a tent in which you can comfortably lie without folding up your legs. And don’t forget about the space you’ll need for your gear.
- Vestibule: Think of a tent vestibule as your tent’s mudroom. They offer storage for boots, shoes, etc. Plus, they are a great place to store wet, muddy gear that you wouldn’t want in your tent. Choosing a tent with a vestibule can mean the difference between a cramped, muddy, wet tent, and a comfortable, clean, dry one!
- Tent Ventilation: Nowadays, 3-season tent manufacturers have to keep up with the latest ventilation technology on the market for customers to take them seriously. Most of them implement a multi-door solution to their tents and use mesh coverings on the doors, tops, and windows to keep the elements out and the air flowing in.
Should You Buy A 4-Season Tent?
A 4-season tent is essentially a 3-season tent that’s built specifically for cold weather. You can use a 4-season tent when hiking on low mountains or even on plains when the weather is between warm and chilly, but your experience may not be comfortable since you will have less ventilation and the tent will heat up quickly.
Most 3-season tents feature all-weather material, but 4-season tents make them look amateurish by most standards. 4-season tents have thick poles and multi-layered exteriors that help ensure your survival in the harsh winds and blizzards of northern climates or high altitudes. Their exterior fabric protects you from sleet, hail, snow buildup, and violent gusts of wind.
Four-season tents typically don’t have mesh windows and doors. And if they do, there is another layer you can zip over them. Their bodies contain several layers of nylon and polyester to keep your body heat inside the tent. Some models allow for vents to prevent condensation.
Campers stake their 4-season-tent vestibules and rain flies to the ground because harsh winds are a common enemy at the elevations where people use them. Four-season tent frames are aluminum or a thicker alloy that gives them more stability and robustness compared to 3-season tents. As a result, 4-season tents are much harder to carry, assemble, and dismantle, and only campers who know what they’re doing tend to use them.
If you’re going to be camping at 4000 meters above sea level or higher, or in the winter in a cold climate zone, you’ll likely need a 4-season tent. And even with 4 season tents, you might need to insulate your tent for winter camping in extremely cold temps.
Picking Out A Great 4-Season Tent
Most of the principles mentioned above for picking out the perfect 3-season tent can also apply to 4-season tents, but there are a few caveats.
For example, four-season tents commonly weigh between 8-16 pounds, which is twice the weight of a 3-season tent.
So, let’s look at a few of these caveats now.
Single-Wall Or Double-Wall?
By default, all 3-season tents are single-wall tents, but some 4-season tents have evolved to be single-walled as well. The famous Black Diamond El Dorado is a single-walled, lightweight 4-season tent used by mountaineers who have scaled both Mount Everest and Kilimanjaro.
Black Diamond Eldorado TentPrice:
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Single-walled 4-season tents have one layer of breathable nylon to protect you from the cold. They still have more robust frames than a 3-season tent, but they offer only slightly improved protection.
Double-walled tents are weightier, most of the time weighing 7-9 pounds, and are typically more resistant to harsh winds while doing a better job of protecting you from the cold.
Double-walled tents typically provide superior protection against the harsh winter elements. Single-walled 4 season tents offer great protection but are better suited for milder winter conditions.
Tree Line, Mountaineering, Or Basecamp?
You will find three kinds of 4-season tents: treeline, mountaineering, and basecamp.
Basecamp tents are the burliest and most substantial, and it is not a good idea to carry them to the summit because of the strain they will put on your back. Basecamp tents are for camping in high elevation and protecting you from blizzards, heavy snowfalls, and strong winds.
Mountaineering tents are the most popular kind, and most 3-season tents belong in this category. They typically feature weatherproof tent technology suitable for camping anywhere on a mountain.
Treeline tents are the lightest of the 4 season tents. While they are designed for winter camping, they aren’t a good choice for heavy winter exposure. They are, however, a great choice for light winter camping or on a 3-season adventure where the weather may be unpredictable.
Choose the type of tent, whether it be a basecamp, mountaineering, or treeline tent, that best suits your winter camping needs.