A lot of people are talking about 3 and 4 season tents lately. But, what does that really mean? Does it mean a 3 season tent can’t be used in the winter? Is a 4 season tent good for every season? What’s the difference anyway? First, the nomenclature itself is a little misleading. So let’s start with the basics, and work our way up. We’ll cover the definitions of the two, and do a comparison using the Big Agnes Seedhouse and Battle Mountain tents.
A 3 season tent Is generally referred to as a tent designed for use in spring, summer, and fall. These tents are designed to be light weight and to protect from rain and wind. The build is typically designed to provide as much ventilation as possible. Open meshy walls and lots of vents will allow for air to flow freely throughout the entire tent while protecting the user from a direct wind. This is to prevent condensation build up and to also allow cooler air to get inside. The side rain cover and or vestibules will usually sit off the ground to allow air to move in also. Ultra-light weight, thin body and floor materials are becoming more and more common, providing less bulk and weight. Thinner, lighter weight aluminum frames and sleeveless pole setup cuts weight while still remaining strong enough to survive most mild weather events. Most common is the usage of clips to attach the tent body to the poles, which speeds setup while cutting weight. Many shelters eliminate the weight of poles by allowing trekking poles (which many users already carry) to provide the structure of the tent. These shelters usually weigh somewhere between 3 and 6 lbs.
Notice the thin frame above (Big Agnes Seedhouse SL3, 3 season tent), breezy mesh walls, and thin materials.
A 4 season tent Generally, a four season tent a shelter that, despite the name, is normally used only in the winter. Snowy conditions or areas of very harsh wind are prime locations for 4 season tent usage. These tents are built to protect from snow, snow buildup, ice, hail, and high winds. The walls are often built entirely mesh free, instead using a polyester of nylon to trap in some body heat and block out gusty winds. Vents are usually provided, which allows the tent to open up to control condensation, but this is less of an issue in colder temperatures. The rain fly or vestibules often extend completely to the ground, blocking wind, and often have flaps that fold inward, which allows for snow to be packed onto them, improving stability and protection from the elements. Thicker, more robust frame designs, almost always aluminum, are used. Full fabric sleeves can be used to further improve strength and stability, but provides a slower, more complicated setup. Often times more pole sections are utilized providing better framing and better protection around the tent for stability against gusts, and providing enough strength to hold up against the weight of accumulating snow or ice. Often, large extended vestibules, extra doors, additional guy out points, and internal gear pockets are available. These tents average a weight anywhere between 8 and 16 pounds, although recent technologies have brought them down to the 5 lb range for many models.
Above (The Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2, 4 season tent), you see the thicker frame, full coverage walls, and generally more robust build.
So, what’s the difference?
It would be better to call a “3 season tent” a backpacking tent, and a “4 season tent” an extreme weather tent. 3 season tents are built to withstand the typical conditions associated with backpacking: rain, wind, light hail and some cold weather. 4 season tents are designed to handle everything else: Snow loads, high winds, harsh winters and even blowing sand. A 4 season tent is simply a tent designed to take it all, while a 3 season tent is designed to be as light as possible, while sacrificing some strength and protection.
Which tent is right for me?
As a general rule of thumb, if you’re not camping in the cold, snow or constant high winds (gusts of 30+ mph) a 3 season tent should be the way to go. They’re lighter, cheaper, easier to use, and provide plenty of protection for most users. Not to mention the fact that they’re quite a bit cheaper.
However, if you need strength, flexibility and warmth, a 4 season tent can certainly add peace of mind and comfort, especially when the weather begins to create challenging conditions that might otherwise flatten a 3 season tent.
In the end, it depends on what you plan to do with it.
A 3 season tent can, and often is, used year round. They’ll provide protection from light snows, resist most windy conditions, and a good sleeping bag overrides the need for solid walls. So, the choice is yours.
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