3 season vs 4 season tent. What’s the difference?

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.

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.

Big AGnes Seedhouse SL3 backpacking tent

Notice the thin frame above (Big Agnes Seedhouse SL3, 3 season tent), breezy mesh walls, and thin materials.

Big AGnes Seedhouse SL3

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.

Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2

Above (The Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2, 4 season tent), you see the thicker frame, full coverage walls, and generally more robust build.

Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2

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.

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.

If you have any questions or comments, please leave us a message below or send us a direct email. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (links to the right).

Thanks for reading!

Big Agnes Battle Mountain 2


53 thoughts on “3 season vs 4 season tent. What’s the difference?

  1. A 3 season tent Is generally referred to as a tent designed for use in spring, winter, and fall.

    I think you mean spring, summer and fall.
    4 Season includes winter.

      1. “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.” Might want to consider revising this sentence also.

      2. Any full double wall shelter should hold up just fine for even the most intense rain season. Single wall tents, not so much as condensation will be a real struggle.

      1. This is true. There have been tents tried in the past that had insulation (they didn’t work out), so possibly those!
        I’ve definitely had a few tents I couldn’t tolerate in the heat though…

    1. Hi, So, I have never used 4 season tent. I wanted to find out from you guys if it actually works in winter with low temp. I went to the store looked at many options. They just seem extremely thin for any protection from cold wind or snow or below 0 temp. Any advice? Would love to hear if you have had any experience with that. Thanks.

      1. Hi Katty,
        So the walls of a 4 season tent will mostly provide you protection from wind and snow blowing in. When it comes to keeping you warm, that is really going to come down to your sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and your clothing. Definitely don’t rely on the tent to keep you warm. It will feel warmer with the wind block and all, but it is still going to be quite cold inside, which is actually a good thing. It if heated up it would condensate and get nasty real quick. What you really want to look for is a good sturdy frame and good snow blocking, and plenty of vents.
        I’m still a big of the Big Agnes Battle Mountain and the Sierra Designs Convert 2. Both are good starting points. The North Face also has some good offerings but we don’t cover their products here.

  2. I may be camping outside for a month during October in Western North Carolina mountains, where night time temps may reach low thirties. I am 73 with some COPD. Should I invest in a four-season tent? Any recommendations?

    1. Hi,

      Normally for temperatures and conditions in October, I would say no. However, given you’ll be spending a month inside and your condition, it’s probably not a bad investment. It will keep you a bit warmer, allow you to regulate the air around you better, and it’s going to be sturdy enough to reliably take any conditions that come your way.
      My personal favorite is the Big Agnes Battle Mountain, but since you’re car camping you can probably get away with the cheaper SlumberJack In-Season 2. Both of these tents I’ve reviewed. The Battle Mountain is certainly the stronger tent, but for most conditions, especially if this is at a camp ground, the In-Season 2 would probably suffice for about 1/3 of the cost.
      You might also consider sleeping with a buff, balaclava, or something similar over your face if it still gets too cold for you.

  3. Hi! Do you have any experience with tunnel tents and stronger wind? I’m planning to camp in Ireland in late September and know the wind (and rain) can be pretty strong, so I’m kinda looking for smth. with a bit of indoor space. Appreciate your recommendation!

    1. Hi!

      I do have some experience with them. I’ve owned several over the years, and while they hold up great in the wind (depending on the model)I found the buffeting from the sides and the overall lack of head/shoulder room a bit bothersome. They get quite flappy and noisy throughout the night. I’ve settled into sturdier, although heavier, full framed designs that work well and stay quiet so I can get some sleep.
      My personal favorite is the Big Agnes Battle Mountain, but that’s probably too much tent for most people. You might consider the REI Arete ASL as a cheaper, lighter alternative. But, if you’re set on tunnels, some of them can be quite solid in the wind. Did you have a particular model you were looking into?

  4. I’m going to Burning Man, and the main issue is dust. Which tent would you suggest? Would a 3 season tent work? The desert will be hot during the day and chilly at night. Mostly concern for the dust factor.

    1. That sounds like a fun time! A 3-season can work, but you’ll want something that doesn’t have low mesh walls. Something with high walls of breathable nylon would be your best bet.
      Something like the Marmot Limelight 2 would be a safe bet as it has high nylon all around. Or perhaps the Fly Creek 2 (non HV model) if you’re cutting weight.

  5. I have a four season backpacker shelter and solid fuel cookstove with a chimney. I have not seen anything on the market that I would be more comfortable using in the four seasons. Any outfit that does not have a chimney that enables cooking inside and shelter tight to the ground is useless in my opinion. A simple square tarp, a peg in each of the four corners,. Chimney supporting the center. 4 rigid upright pole mid corner roof support or just one corner pole for a single occupant of the tarp pitch. Stove and chimney all steel 1,5 lbs. All 4 sides of this tarp pitch can be raised forming a shade on a hot day with out changing pegs or poles. Show me a four season shelter and cooking outfit.

    1. That’s certainly a solid way to do it. Do you have any images of your setup? I’d love to see it. That’s really not a configuration you see in my area, but I’d like to try it for myself.
      I generally just rely on a good sleeping bag and jacket for the winter, but having an actual heat source does sound dreamy.

  6. I living in Houston Texas and would like to be able to camp during the summer. What type of tent should I get that will hold in cold hair from a portable ac unit?

    1. Well, that’s a tricky one. Ideally, you’d want something with as little mesh as possible, maybe even none. Hilleberg tunnel tents come to mind. This will stop the free flow of air and even block sand, however, condensation could be a real issue. Truthfully though, no tent is truly going to trap air. The material is so thin and provides essentially zero insulative properties. This will be especially true against the heat of the dessert. All you can really do is block the air flow as much as possible, but even then you’ll only be working with the direct flow from your AC unit to provide any real cooling.

      1. I live in South Texas so I empathize with Sheryl about wanting an AC blowing cool, dry air to compensate for the miserable 85 degree, 98 percent humidity nights of East Texas (definitely not a desert there) but realistically speaking, I think your best bet is a tent that allows as much air to go through (all mesh) just for protection against bugs, sleeping outside your bag with light clothes and perhaps a usb powered fan to aid with ventilation.

      2. While I can’t say I’ve ever camped in your area, I think I’d have to go with your idea and just push for maximum ventilation. It’s amazing what a nice powered fan can do. Even in my area (I’ve camped in the 90’s with near 100 percent humidity, and it was horrendous), a little air flow goes a long way.

  7. We have a Coleman Exponent Dakota 8-person tent that we bought almost 15 years ago. It’s beautiful and has kept us warm and comfortable through many a camping trip. It has 3 sections with openings on both ends, an entry in the middle, 2 dividers, and a full rain fly. Unfortunately, the poles have begun to splinter and I don’t know where to find replacements. I’ve bought Coleman replacements, but they’re too small/gauge is too narrow. Currently, the poles are wrapped with gorilla tape to keep them going. It looks like buying a replacement tent of similar size and quality would be pretty pricey. Any suggestions on where/how I can find the right replacement poles? Thanks!

    1. Hi,

      Sorry to hear an old shelter is having some issues. Have you tried contacting Coleman directly? They may have some exact matches available. Or, you could check out Easton poles, who sell individual sections at varying thicknesses (although you’ll likely have to do some measuring to get what you need). They’ll be higher grade than what came with your shelter (aluminum), and will never splinter. I’ll put a link to them below. Fiberglass is known to fray, splinter and crack without much cause, so if you want to avoid the issue permanently, it’s a good solution. Alternatively, you might consider an entirely new shelter, as they’ve come a long way. Places like the REI Garage online or Sierra Trading post are good places to find some stellar deals. Campmore also sells fiberglass pole sections, but again you’ll need to measure thickness and length to find something that works. If you have difficulties, let me know and I may be able to help narrow it down.

      1. Thanks for the link and suggestions! I’ll give them a try. Duh, didn’t even think of directly calling Coleman.

  8. Hello, i was thinking of getting a 3-season tent and i like camping mostly in spring, fall, and winter. I do fine in the cold and i think with a good sleeping bag i should be fine but wanted to get another opinion on the matter. Thanks in advance.

    1. Hi Ian. As long as you have a nice warm bag and a tent that isn’t too breezy, you’ll be absolutely fine. I’ve spent many years camping in the winter in a 3 season tent. I prefer something with decent wind blocking potential, but otherwise I’m happy to have th weight most of the time.

  9. I have an older(possibly 29 year old) 6 man dome tent, it is quite heavy, the poles go through full length sleeves. It has a few sealable windows and vents. It came with a rain fly and has only one door. The rain fly dosnt go completely to the ground but it is close. Maybe about within 6 inches all the way around. It has a solid floor. I don’t remember if it the material meets the side walls at the ground or if it goes up the wall a little bit. How do you thing it would do as a tent for winter camping? I also have 2 propane heaters they do have auto shut off if tipped over, I would like to use but I am concerned about safety. Any suggestions about their use.

    1. Hi,

      That quite depends. When you say winter camping, do you mean camping in cold weather at a campground? If so, then you should be fine.
      If you are actually backpacking with it, where your life may actually depend on the tent, I would say absolutely not. A good 4 season tent will provide real protection in these conditions, where any older dome tent will fail.
      I also never recommend propane heaters, as they’re not a reliable source of warmth. You never want your warmth to rely on equipment that can, in some way, fail. A good sleeping bag, sleeping pad, thermals and jacket is a much safer, and ultimately more comfortable option.
      I’m happy to provide more specific guidance if you can get me some more details in how you plan to camp.

  10. Is there a 3 season tent with windows that could be opened or closed depending on the weather and wind ?

    1. Well, there are a lot of shelters that allow you to open the vestibules up on both sides to let a lot of air in and get some breeze, but not so much in the rain.
      If you can find a slightly older Sierra Designs Lightning, they had exactly what you are referring to and were really great shelters. These let you view the rain without issue. Not much else really comes to mind that’s currently in production sadly, not within backpacking weight anyway.
      You can see my review linked below.
      You can also string an ultralight tarp over the entrance to create an addition, which I have done many times.

    2. Well, there are a lot of shelters that allow you to open the vestibules up on both sides to let a lot of air in and get some breeze, but not so much in the rain.
      If you can find a slightly older Sierra Designs Lightning, they had exactly what you are referring to and were really great shelters. These let you view the rain without issue. Not much else really comes to mind that’s currently in production sadly, not within backpacking weight anyway.
      You can see my review linked below.
      You can also string an ultralight tarp over the entrance to create an addition, which I have done many times.

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