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Tents are the most common shelter choice for camping and also usually one of the most expensive pieces of gear you’ll purchase for your outdoor adventures. Shopping for tents can quickly become frustrating as you’re left sorting through numerous different models all promising to be the most resilient, comfortable shelter. This process is made even more tiresome if you aren’t even sure exactly what type of tent you need.
The two most common types of tents are 3 season and 4 season. Based on the terminology you probably already have an idea of these classifications, but the differences between the two are actually a bit more complicated than you might think. In order to spend your money wisely and select the best shelter for your purposes, you need to understand a few of the differences between 3 season and 4 season shelters as well as how exactly they differ from one another.
The most common style of tent is the 3 season. The 3 season tent, as its name suggests, is typically appropriate for camping in the spring, summer and fall seasons. Chances are high that the average camper will only ever need a 3 season tent as most casual/amateur backpackers likely won’t be camping in very inclement weather.
The main characteristics of a 3 season tent include:
The vast majority of 3 season tents have a double-wall design, which means the outer rainfly is separate from the inner walls. This dual-layer design, combined with other features mentioned below, allows for maximum ventilation and condensation prevention.
Although not so much a concern with car camping, when it comes to backpacking you’re going to want to get as light weight of a tent as you can while still maintaining durability. When it comes to the durability factor 3 season tents will be the most lightweight, easily packable option. Just look for tents specifically listed as light, ultralight or “UL”.
Since 3 season tents typically are double-walled in design this means you can set it up without the rain fly. As most of these tents have partial mesh walls you can easily spend a summer night under the stars while still being protected from direct drafts and bugs.
Big mesh panels and windows mean you can get great ventilation in a 3 season tent. Since these tents are for spring and summer use they are your best bet for a variety of weather conditions common during these 3 seasons. Usually, vestibules on 3 season tents sit slightly up from the ground to air in air circulation as well.
Going back to the lightweight factor, 3 season tents tend to try and use as few poles as possible and the lightest material they can. Usually, manufacturers will opt for thinner, aluminum poles and a plastic clip attachment to aid in cutting down weight. This factor is an important one to keep in mind when comparing 3 season to 4 season tents (more on that below).
Another feature of 3 season tents is that some are designed to use trekking poles in place or all or some regular poles you might need to erect the shelter. Since backpackers may already use trekking poles while hiking this help eliminate more weight and save space in your backpack.
When it comes to versatility the 3 season model and average design is the most adaptable. Touched on previously, the 3 season is the best overall choice for the vast majority of backpackers. In some regions, you may only ever need a 3 season model.
All in all, 3 season tents are the go-to design that essentially is going to be a great shelter almost all year round. They are easier to pack, lighter in weight, and are often the most comfortable shelters to sleep in when it comes to ventilation and climate control. You will also find a wide variety of sizes and designs within this category of a tent.
The term “4 season tent” is actually a bit of a misnomer, and one new backpackers may not be aware of. At first, you may assume a 4 season tent is appropriate for all 4 seasons or basically year-round use. In reality, a better name for the 4 season tent is the 4th season tent, meaning you’ll really only need this type of tent in winter. The tents are the toughest, most weather resistant options, which is great in winter but often overkill throughout the rest of the year.
The most common characteristics of 4 season tents include:
The 4 season tent is designed with cold or harsh weather in mind, but that does not include harsh hot weather. Don’t make the mistake of taking a 4 season tent out in the summer heat. It will be unnecessarily heavy and you likely won’t be able to create a comfortable climate.
A common style of 4 season tents is steep walls. While individual shapes vary, the majority will have sharp, steep walls. This helps snow and rain slip off while also helping winds more effectively swoop around it rather than hit it full force.
You’ll find most 4 season tents may require more poles to set up and chances are your trekking poles won’t cut it, save for maybe a vestibule. The poles included will be thicker and far less prone to bending.
Even though some technology has allowed for lighter weight tents, 4 season tents aren’t exactly lightweight by nature. These are tough, heavy tents chosen for creating a safe shelter foremost. Most will be anywhere from 6 to a whopping 16lbs.
Since heat isn’t so much of a concern most 4 season tents have a more basic ventilation system or perhaps only a tiny vent at the top if you have a single-wall model. You still will have some air circulation, in order to prevent condensation from freezing, but mostly these tents will hold in heat rather than disperse it.
With the heavier materials and sturdy construction in mind, it’s no surprise that a higher price is common for 4 season tents. They are less versatile as you really only want to use them in winter, but if you need protection for harsh, chilly conditions, these are worth every penny spent.
Basically, 4 season tents are limited in how often they can be used, therefore making them an important investment only for those that really need a serious shelter.
A common question if you already own a 3 season tent or don’t have the budgets for two tents is whether you can use your trusty 3 season in winter. There is no simple yes or no answer to this, but you can make a decision based on a few factors.
If the winter in your area is very mild with no or very low snow risks, you probably can use a 3 season tent. If you get mild to heavy snow or camp in a region with bitter cold winds, you should opt for a 4 season tent. Snow loads can quickly collapse even a very sturdy 3 season tent, leading to a potentially fatal disaster if you’re hours from help. Snow aside, you must also consider how strong winds can be. Even if there isn’t a danger of snow, if you are on a peak or other location where you’re going to get hit with heavy cold winds, don’t risk a 3 season tent.
Overall it is always better to err on the side of caution, especially when it comes to weather that is dangerous without proper shelter. It is also important to consider your own experience. Novice campers will be safer in a 4 season tent if they might experience bad weather or even just light snow while more experienced campers will have judgment to decide whether they may get by with a 3 season model or not.
Sam Hardy is an outdoor enthusiast with a penchant for survival skills. He writes about the great outdoors and his favorite equipment here.