So your old tent needs replacing and you’re trying to decide between 3-season vs 4-season tents. What’s the difference and what will best suit your needs?
- 3 season tent is designed for use in temperate spring, summer and fall conditions
- 4 season tent is designed for winter – or at altitude, above the treeline, harsh weather
Know you’re off in cold weather? See the best winter tents for cold weather camping.
The naming convention is a little misleading but essentially they’re designed to cater for the worst weather conditions you can expect in the coldest of the seasons they’re named for.
Let’s take a look at some key differences in the construction, design and features of these two options.
What You'll Learn
What does a 3-season tent mean?
If you’re backpacking or camping in the shoulder seasons, you’ll need to be prepared for some moderate rain, wind and even some light snow. A 3 season tent is a backpacking tent that will cater for these conditions while still being comfortable to use in warmer summer months.
Here are some of the key features that differentiate a 3 season tent from a 4 season tent:
- Weather-proofness – The lightweight nature of these tents mean they’re only really up to protecting you from moderate rain, moderate wind and some light snow.
- Material – Wall and floor made from lighter, thinner polyester and nylon. The reduced denier reduces the overall weight but also the durability. Denier alone isn’t the only strength indicator though, so pay attention to the material type. Some thin specialized materials can offer better durability than simple thicker materials.
- Ventilation – Breathing in your tent causes water vapor to build up and condensation to form on the inside surfaces of your tent. A 3 season tent will have lots of open mesh panels and vents to allow maximum air flow to prevent condensation. If you’re concerned about dust blowing into your tent then go for one that doesn’t have low mesh walls. The solid panel below where the mesh starts will keep most of the dust and sand blowing along the ground from getting inside.
- Breathability – Uses higher breathability fabrics to combat condensation buildup but relies on a taut rainfly to keep rain out effectively.
- Rain fly – These tents always employ a double wall construction. You can get away without using the rainfly if you’re sure you’re not going to get rained on. Shoulder seasons inevitably mean rain so it’s worth packing. A taut rainfly will also improve wind resistance and helps prevent condensation. The rainfly and vestibules don’t extend all the way to the ground to allow for better airflow.
- Construction – Walls are more upright, allowing for more headroom. Poles are made from lighter, thinner materials and there are fewer of them. Bathtub design keeps water and mud out, even in absence of footprint.
- Durability – Thinner wall and floor materials as well as lighter duty poles make 3 season tents less durable than 4 season tents. Heavy wind and the weight of snow or ice could cause damage.
- Ease of setup – A lot more user friendly and faster to set up due to reduced pole count. The tent poles are often connected to the walls by clips rather than having to thread them through sleeves. Some 3 season tents have been designed to accommodate trekking poles. If you backpack with trekking poles this gives you the option to leave the tent poles at home and save a few pounds.
- Footprint – Normally sold separately. If you’re going to use one make sure it doesn’t stick out from under your tent floor as it could cause water to pool up against your tent. Always a good idea if protecting your tent floor is important enough to you to justify packing a little heavier.
- Weight & packability – Lighter materials and thinner and fewer poles make these tents a lot lighter and more packable. These tents typically weigh around 3 lbs to 6 lbs.
If you’re looking for a budget 3 season tent then the Kelty Grand Mesa is a great 2 man tent. If you’re after one of the best 3 season tents with more space and some great features then check out the MSR Elixir.
What is a 4 season tent?
A 4 season tent is actually designed to be used in one season: winter. Specifically these tents are designed to handle the worst winter conditions with strong gusts of wind, rain, hail and heavy snow falls.
Key features of 4 season tents:
- Weather-proofness – Designed to keep the worst wind, rain and snow out. Besides keeping the elements out it, the stronger construction means it’ll survive the weight of heavy snow and getting thrashed by high winds.
- Material – Wall and floor made from thicker waterproof / breathable polyester and nylon.
- Ventilation – Condensation is still a concern but keeping the elements out and staying warm in severe weather is a bigger issue. These tents have a lot less ventilation and the walls are generally entirely mesh free. This can make the tent a little stuffy but traps body heat inside. Having some small vents at the top to allow for basic ventilation is a good idea.
- Breathability – Lack of mesh and focus on insulation makes these tents less breathable. Double wall design will have a more breathable inner material than a single wall design will.
- Rain fly – A double wall design will have a rain fly that goes all the way down to the ground for maximum wind blocking. If you’re looking to go ultralight then a single wall tent also works well in the snow albeit with reduced durability and a smaller footprint.
- Construction – Have a more rigid exoskeleton comprised of a larger quantity of heavier duty poles. The increased structural strength is needed to withstand strong gusts of wind and the weight of heavy snow or hail. The walls are more angled to prevent snow packing onto the walls and also present a more streamlined surface to the wind.
- Durability – Greater durability comes from thicker wall and floor material as well as thicker poles.
- Ease of setup – More poles means more setup time. Many use full fabric sheaths which improve rigidity but take longer to setup and break down. Single wall tents will be quicker to set up and some 4 season tents now use clips instead of sheaths to secure the poles.
- Footprint – If you’re setting the tent up on snow then you can get away without having to use a footprint. The thicker floor material is also less likely to get torn. Even so, it may be worth packing a footprint. Your body warmth can melt the snow underneath your tent and when it freezes again you could end up with your tent floor stuck to the ground. You’re better off ripping a hole in your footprint than in your tent floor.
- Weight & packability – More poles and thicker fabric result in increased weight and reduced packability. Generally these tents weigh around 8 – 16 pounds depending if you’re going with a single or double wall design.
The North Face make some of the best 4 season tents with the Mountain 25 being a solid choice if your budget allows for it. The Big Agnes Battle Mountain offers excellent performance at a more mid-range price while the Naturehike Cloud-Up is a decent budget model.
So 3 season vs 4 season – which will it be?
A 4 season winter tent is only really worth buying if you’re heading into seriously heavy snow and strong winds. The benefit of these tents is that they’re not going to collapse on you or fall apart when wild weather sets in.
But low temperatures alone aren’t enough reason to justify the increased cost. You really should be relying on your sleeping bag and clothes to keep you warm, not your tent.
Can I use a 3 season tent in winter?
Sure you can. A good quality model would be fine in moderate rain or even light snow. If you’ve got your tent pitched properly and your rain fly nice and taut you’ll still be fine in a bit of wind.
Just don’t expect it to hold up against heavy wind or be able to support the weight of snow or ice packing on the outside. If you think you might get a bit of snow but still want the versatility of a 3 season tent then you could also opt for a 3+ season tent like the Marmot Fortress. These can handle some snow but still have decent enough venting to use in warmer conditions.
If you buy a 4 season and use it in more temperate conditions the worst case scenario is that you’ll end up wishing you had a bit more ventilation and that your pack was a little lighter. If you try to use a 3 season in hardcore winter conditions the implications will be a lot more serious.
If you’re not heading into snow and winds over 30 mph then save yourself some money and buy a 3 season tent. Besides the reduced cost, they’re lighter, quicker to set up and offer more versatility for use throughout the year.
However, if you’re expecting extreme winter conditions then don’t skimp. Get the best 4 season tent you can afford. The added safety, durability and comfort are worth the extra dollars, pack weight and setup time.