What is a 4-season tent, and do you really need one?

by | Sep 9, 2022 | Gear

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You’ve heard of three-season tents… but what is a four-season tent? And do you really need one?

“Four-season” suggests that it can be used no matter what time of the year it is. But what does that actually mean?

What makes a tent 4-season?

Two 4-season tents in heavy snow on a campsite.

A four-season tent is typically made with thicker, more durable fabric than your average three-season tent. The seams are also sealed better to keep out moisture and wind. And the poles are usually stronger too.

Why? Because a four-season tent is designed for use in harsher conditions—think winter camping or mountaineering. These are the kind of trips where you might encounter high winds, heavy snow, and temperatures below freezing.

The shape of a four-season tent is also a little different than your typical a three-season tent. The structure for a four-season tent is often designed in a geodesic dome shape or sometimes an A-frame shape to keep heavy snow loads from piling up on top of it.

This is the kind of tent you’d take if you were planning to camp in the winter. A four-season tent is made to withstand the elements and keep you warm and dry, no matter what Mother Nature throws your way.

Do you need a 4-season tent?

A man standing in front of a 4-season tent with snowshoes in the winter.

Now that you know what a four-season tent is, the next question is: do you need one?

If you’re an avid camper or backpacker, chances are you already have a three-season tent that you love. So why would you need to upgrade to a four-season?

Well, it really depends on what kind of camping you like to do. If you typically stick to summer trips where the weather is warm and mild, then a three-season tent will suffice. But if you like to camp year-round—in all kinds of weather—then a four-season tent is a good investment.

Here are a few situations where you might need a four-season tent:

  1. You’re planning to camp in the winter.
  2. You’re planning to camp in cold, wet, or windy conditions.
  3. You’re planning to do a lot of mountaineering or backpacking in exposed areas.

If any of those apply to you, then a four-season tent is a good choice. But if you don’t camp in extreme conditions, then you can probably stick with your trusty three-season tent.

But is a 4-season tent necessary for winter camping?

The view of a wintery landscape outside the doorway of a  4-season tent.

The simple answer to this is yes—mainly for safety reasons. The more complicated answer is that it really depends on the conditions you’ll be camping in.

For instance, if you live where we live—Ontario, Canada—then you know that it can get extremely cold and snowy in the dead of winter. End of December to early March is when it’s the coldest and snowiest, so camping anywhere here during those months would require nothing less than a four-season tent and lots of preparation so that you know how to stay warm and safe.

Now, if you live somewhere that’s more mild or temperate, or you plan on camping in very early winter (when conditions may overlap with fall) or very late winter (when conditions may overlap with spring), then you may be able to get away with a three-season tent. That’s only if temperatures aren’t extremely cold, the winds aren’t ripping, and there’s barely any snow or precipitation.

It’s up to you to know the conditions you’ll be camping and match them to your experience and comfort level.

A glowing 4-season tent with someone inside it at night.

A four-season tent will typically only be a few degrees warmer than a three-season tent—sometimes as little as 5 or 10 degrees. But those few degrees can make a world of difference when you’re camping in the middle of winter.

Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. Some four-season tents are made specifically for winter camping and mountaineering, and they can be a lot warmer than your average three-season tent. But those are usually heavier, more expensive, and not as versatile as your standard four-season tent.

The added warmth in your typical four-season tent comes from how it’s designed: with heavy-duty material and far less mesh, which prevents drafts and heat loss. You can also close the vents, doors, and any windows to keep cold air out and warm air in.

One way to increase the warmth of a four-season tent is by bringing along a portable gas-powered heater. Just be sure to use it safely and follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

What is the warmest type of tent?

Believe it or not, a four-season tent isn’t the warmest type of tent you can get. In fact, the next level up from a four-season tent is a five-season or expedition tent.

A five-season/expedition tent is basically a four-season tent on steroids—although you probably wouldn’t want to use it for fall, summer, or spring. It’s made for mountaineers and alpine explorers who camp in the most extreme conditions—the kind of conditions where you might not make it out alive if you don’t have the right gear.

You might “feel” like you’re on an expedition, but that doesn’t mean you need an expedition tent. For the average winter camper, an expedition tent probably isn’t the best choice. Besides—it’s still not the warmest type of tent you can get!

The warmest type of tent is… a hot tent. Now we’re talking!

A hot tent surrounded by trees and snow.

Elise and I are avid hot tent campers, which basically involves setting up a large canvas tent over a portable wood-burning stove. The stove has a chimney that fits through a hole in the tent so that the smoke can escape.

This type of setup is incredibly cozy and can get quite warm, even in the dead of winter. We’ve camped in extreme cold and found the air near the top of the tents feels like it could be 30°C (86°F).

Now that’s what we call a warm (actually hot) tent! You can read more about this kind of tent and winter camping trips by checking out our hot tent camping guide.

Can you use a 4-season tent in the summer?

Yes, you can use a four-season tent in the summer, but there are a few things to keep in mind. First, it’s important to understand that any “all-around” piece of gear will lack some of the specialized qualities and functions that a use-specific piece of gear will have.

For instance, a four-season tent will be significantly hotter than a three-season tent in the summer months, which could be seriously inconvenient if you’re camping in 90 to 100-degree heat. That’s because it has less mesh and is made with thicker, more insulating fabric. So if you’re camping in hot weather, you may want to consider using a three-season tent instead.

Camping tent in the shaded trees.

Since four-season tents sacrifice some breathability for insulation, you’ll want to make sure you open the doors and windows to ventilate the tent. Otherwise, it will be incredibly stuffy inside.

And lastly, if you’re an ultralight backpacker or camper, you may want to consider a different type of tent altogether. That’s because four-season tents are usually much heavier than three-season tents due to requiring more fabric and poles, and they typically don’t pack down as small.

So if weight and space are your main concerns, a three-season tent might be the better choice for summer camping trips.

What to look for in a 4-season tent

A 4-season tent in the snowy mountains.

When shopping for a four-season tent, there are a few things you’ll want to keep a lookout for. Here are the most important features of a four-season tent to focus on:

High-quality, durable material. That means double-wall construction with waterproof fabrics like nylon or polyester. And it should have a waterproof coating on the flysheet (the outer layer) to keep you dry in wet weather.

Good insulation. Many four-season tents come equipped with mesh windows that you can zip up with an extra layer of fabric for extra versatility, but in general, the less mesh, the warmer the tent will be.

Taped seams. All of the seams on the rainfly and floor should be taped to prevent water from seeping in.

Heavy-duty poles. They should be made of aluminum or another strong material that can withstand high winds and heavy snowfall.

Snow flaps. These are strips of fabric that go around the bottom of the tent to keep out drafts, wind, and cold air.

Vents. Vents help circulate air and reduce condensation inside the tent. They should be located near the top of the tent so they don’t let in any cold air.

Awnings or vestibules. Awnings and vestibules provide a bit of extra protection from the elements, and they’re great for storing gear or cooking in bad weather.

Lots of guy-outs. Guy-outs are the cords or ropes that you use to secure the tent to the ground. The more guy-outs a tent has, the more stable it will be in high winds.

Appropriate size. Four-season tents tend to be roomier than three-season tents, however you’ll still need to consider the number of people it sleeps.

Minimal weight and bulk. Four-season tents are usually heavier and bulkier than three-season tents, so keep that in mind if you’re planning on backpacking with it.

Ease of setup. Four-season tents can be more complicated to set up compared to three-season tents, so make sure you choose one that’s easy to put together. Colour-coded poles and clips are a good feature to look for.

A price that you’re comfortable with. You can expect a four-season tent to cost more than a three-season tent, but the added cost is worth it—you’ll want to make sure you get a good quality one since it will last longer and perform better in bad weather.

What is the best 4-season tent?

A 4-season tent set up in the snowy mountains.

There’s no “best” four-season tent, but there are tons of great options tents on the market, so you’ll have to do your own digging around and decide what features are most important to you.

Keep in mind if you’re really looking for the best of the best, you have to be willing to pay a pretty penny—almost certainly well over $1,000. With that said, here are a few good ones to consider checking out (at least one of which is budget-friendly):

MSR access lightweight 4-season tent

We personally love the MSR access lightweight, which is a one-person tent that’s incredibly lightweight for a four-season tent at just over 3 pounds. This tent is made from aerospace composite materials with break-resistant poles for exceptional strength and durability in high winds and snowfall. It’s also incredibly fast and easy to set up in cold conditions.

Best for: Solo campers who are looking for a high-quality four-season tent with as little weight and bulk as possible.

Big Agnes battle mountain 3 tent

Big Agnes Battle Mountain 3 Tent

The Big Ages battle mountain 3 tent is a four-season tent that sleeps up to three people, and is designed to be used in the harshest backcountry and alpine conditions. It features no mesh except in the doorway vents to help maximize insulation, and has two vestibule door options including a single-zip door and a double-zip door that can be set up as an awning with trekking poles.

Best for: People who are serious about winter or alpine camping and have the budget for a very well designed and functional tent.

GEERTOP 2-person 4-season ultralight backpacking tent

The GEERTOP 2-person 4-season ultralight backpacking tent offers the best of both worlds in terms of summer camping and winter camping. Double-layered, anti-tear fabric with a surrounding snowskirt means it can’t withstand snow and heavy winds while the inner tent layer features more mesh for it to be more breathable and comfortable in warmer weather.

Best for: Couples or solo backpackers who want a super versatile four-season tent that’s lightweight and affordable.

Remember that a four-season tent is a versatile investment that can be used all year round, in a variety of weather conditions. Be sure to do your research and choose the one that’s right for you based on your needs and budget.

Happy camping, no matter what season it is!

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Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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