When I began tent camping, I didn’t know much about tents. I mistakenly invested in a “festival” three-season tent for winter camping.
The good news is it wasn’t a disastrous choice because I camped below the tree line, and the conditions weren’t stormy. Perfect for a 3-season tent.
Looking back, I would have opted for a four-season tent for cold weather camping.
A four-season tent is recommended for most winter camping and mixed weather conditions at higher elevations. It provides strength and protection against high winds and heavy snowfall.
A typical four-season tent has sturdier tent poles and fabrics than the three season-tent, so it effortlessly stands up to the powerful wind gusts and heavy snow load.
But pole and fabric strength aren’t the only differences between these tents. A couple of other distinct features make a 4-season tent ideal for winter use.
In the guide below, I’ll detail everything you need to know about a 4-season tent and its idealness for winter use.
But first, we must understand the season ratings of tents.
Tent Season Ratings Explained
Tent season ratings may seem self-explanatory, but that’s further from the truth.
The season rating term is actually deceiving.
See, a tent season rating doesn’t refer to the literal season.
For example, a three-season tent doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ideal for use for three seasons, nor does a two-season tent mean it’s usable for two seasons only.
Instead, the season rating indicates how substantial a tent is. It refers to the amount of inclement weather (rain, precipitation, melting snow, wind, and temperature range) a specific tent can stand up to while offering shelter and comfort to its occupants.
Generally, the one-season and two-season tents are lightweight, ideal for use in warm weather, and with little to no rainfall conditions.
On the other hand, the “more” season tents, i.e., the three and four season-tents, are much sturdier for the more challenging conditions.
There’re even five-season tents, which are more robust and heavy-duty than the 4-season tent. The five-season tents are perfect for harsh weather conditions such as alpine mountaineering.
Simply put, the term season in a tent refers to how sturdy and well-made a tent can withstand the harsh climate.
It’s contrary to what many think as the number of seasons a tent can be used.
Now, with the season thing out, let’s look at the three & four season tents and see what they’re best suited for.
Understand that the four and three-season tents are the most common types of tents because of their year-round usage and versatility.
These tents will work in most climates, and depending on the types and level of customization, they could even double up as your only one tent.
What’s a Three-Season Tent?
The three-season tents are the most versatile and probably one of the most popular options.
Theese tents offer the most value for your money, so if you need a tent that offers the biggest bang for your buck, get a three-season tent.
The 3-season tents are generally lighter, especially the single wall tents, so they’re ideal winter backpacking tents. Also, the premium 3-season tents with carbon fiber poles are ultra-light.
However, some three-season tents are also heavy, perfect for car camping.
The primary use of a 3-season tent is rain and light wind protection.
But the bulkier options can stand up to the harsher weather, including the cold conditions and harsh rainstorms.
However, I’d recommend the 3-season tents for summer, spring or fall. In short, they’re perfect when weather conditions are warm and fair.
Even then, I’ve used my 3-season tent in winter, and tell you what? I didn’t freeze to death.
While they’re not suited for winter use, you could make the three-season tent work in mild winter conditions, especially if you bring the right winter camping gear.
If you’re wondering how, listen.
Camping tents don’t add any warmth to your interior space, at least not any significant warmth.
A 4-season tent interior won’t be any different from a three-seasons three-season tent interior.
The real difference is how well a tent can withstand the wind and snow accumulation.
The fiberglass tent poles on a three season-tent are the perfect choice for winter camping if you can overcome the wind and snow accumulation issues.
Most three-season tents also come with a rain fly for water resistance.
I usually remove my rain fly during summer because I don’t even need it. And during spring, I place it to protect against the elements.
What’s a Four-Season Tent?
The four-season tents are a step-up version of the three-season tents in terms of element protection.
The term 4-season tent is perhaps the most misleading rating because these tents aren’t ideal for all the four seasons.
Instead, they often find their purpose mostly in winter and cold weather conditions.
Typical four-season tents are double-layered with heavy waterproof material. They also have tough and light components, allowing them to withstand the harsh winter conditions better than the two or 3-season tents.
Their double-layered fabrics make these tents bulky winter gear, and I wouldn’t recommend them for backpacking. They’re mostly used for car camping.
However, the 4-season tents are usable when you hit early season snowfall and early spring but are inconvenient to use in summer.
Of course, some manufacturers try to market their four-season tents as an all-around tents. But the truth is, even the most breathable true four-season tent will leave you sweating during summer.
On a positive note, the thick fabric and fewer air vents mean the tent cooling solutions work better on these tents.
Tents For Winter Camping
Winter camping is tough, and depending on the conditions, you may need a lot of willpower to sleep in a tent.
A car has much better insulation than a tent.
Understand that the weather you expect is fundamental in determining the type of winter tent to go for.
Both 3-season and 4-season tents are ideal for winter use. But as I mentioned above, the weather conditions will determine the type of tent to choose.
Temperatures in winter usually drop below freezing, but that’s not even a reason to consider one tent over the other.
After all, tents will contribute a little to your warmth.
The trick to winter camping is to insulate yourself from the cold ground. Ideally, you should have something in between you and the ground.
Everyone must have a warm sleeping bag first, the type of tent notwithstanding.
Personally, I use a 15F-rated sleeping bag, and I’ve only felt the cold once the cold temperatures dipped into the 20s.
In my opinion, the gusty wind and rain will be your biggest enemies while winter camping.
I usually prefer a 4-season tent in the harsh and strong winds. I’ve lost half a dozen tents to high winds during winter in the past.
The 4-season tents have sturdy tent poles/ trekking poles and can withstand the force of the winds blowing all over.
But a three-season tent can be an inspiring option if you’re camping in moderately snowy conditions and with less forceful winds blowing.
Provided you’ve good insulation; you’ll be fine in a three-season tent. I’ve slept out in the open in a three-season tent. The temperatures were around freezing without a hassle.
The conditions weren’t windy, though.
Another element to consider is the level of snowfall.
If it’s snowy, choose a tent that can withstand the weight of the melt snow. A 4-season tent wins here.
The 4-season tents are sturdy enough to take on the weight of the snow without compromising their structural integrity.
Finally, consider the tent design. It’s important, especially if you’re desert camping.
Any tent that won’t zip up completely isn’t an option because it will allow blowing sand, dust, and some snow during dust storms.
Winter in a Three-Season Tent
I’ve slept a few winter nights in the 3-season tent, and the experience has been perfectly fine.
I’d say the biggest determinant of whether a three-season tent is ideal for cold weather camping is the snow load it can handle and the amount of wind.
If your winter camping conditions don’t have extreme snow dumping, the odds are your three-season tent can stand up to the winter conditions.
The other main consideration is the level of wind. If you’re winter camping in relatively mild and less windy conditions, you won’t need the pole strength of the 4 or 5-season tents.
Instead, your 3-season tent will stand up against the low wind, and it’s unlikely that it is going to get blown.
In short, I recommend the 3-season tent for beginners not heading to the alpine or poor weather conditions.
Chances are you’re camping in the same location you did during summer, and it’s probably protected by trees and has good weather.
A three-season tent is a perfect option and probably more than enough.
These tents are fine for anything in the fair-weather & moderate snow loads but the deep winter conditions. I’d also ensure there’s no snowstorm coming on my way.
It might be chilly outside, but remember, tents don’t offer significant warmth differences.
I’ve camped for years in a 3-season tent in below-freezing conditions, and my sleeping bag and cold-rated ground/sleeping pad ensured I had no problem.
I’d also recommend you always boil water in your tent in a large pot. You can then place hot water bottles and stuff them in your sleeping bag.
But it’s important to understand that not every 3-season tent will work in the winter conditions.
Remember, there’re a different couple of three-season tents, and some are ultra-light, backpacking models.
The backpacking tent lack a waterproof tent floor or even a rainfly. Their material fabric is also thin and can’t withstand the beating of the snow.
So, even with the 3-season tent category, you must be selective on which tent to pick.
Ideally, choose an option leaning towards the 4-season or the heavy-duty tent.
Winter in a Four-Season Tent
4-season tents are designed for the harsh winter conditions, ideal for mountaineering.
They’re more often tailored for a specific type of alpine environment, so they’ve less versatility than the 3-season tents.
These tents are usually characterized by thicker, heavier double solid walls and a sturdy frame. Some even have extra guylines for added strength.
The sturdier design means the 4-season tents are better at dealing with winds. They can easily withstand the 40+mph winds, and some even the 70+.
Their ridged tent body is also better at taking on the weather elements such as snowfall.
Plus, they come with sturdier fabrics, typically 40D and 75D, compared to the 15 & 20D on backpacking tents.
They’re excellent if you’re camping in an area likely to receive high winter winds, blizzards, and more than 6″ of snow.
In my opinion, the three main reasons you need to choose a 4-season tent for your winter camping needs are:
1) Snow load
If there’s a snow load, you need a tent that allows it to slide off easily.
But more importantly, the tent should also hold the weight of the snow if it builds up.
Usually, most winter tents have a basic x-frame, sufficient for moderate snow.
But for the extra and heavy snow loads, you need more support.
The 4-season tents have sturdier frames that will save your tent from collapse, especially in wet snow.
They come with guy lines and can keep snow from getting under the fly.
2) Blowing snow and wind
The other element is the blowing of fresh snow and wind.
See, during winter, you’ll have to bear with blowing snow.
Now, if your tent is made with a mesh on the inside, it would be easy for the snow to blow in the underside and get inside.
The good thing with the four-season tents is they’re solidly built to keep away the snow and wind from getting inside.
The third benefit is warmth, and it’s not so significant.
Tents won’t generate any warmth, and the level of heat inside will mostly depend on a combination of things, including your choice of a sleeping bag and insulation.
However, because the 4-season tent has a double wall and not a mesh, they tend to be slightly warmer than the three-season tents.
They’re ideal in the chilly and freezing conditions, especially when used alongside other heat-generating solutions.
DIY Tips to Winterize your Tent (Winterizing 3 season Tent and Improving a 4-season Tent)
Tents don’t keep you warm but keep elements at bay.
However, you can employ a few winterizing tips to make your tent space more accommodative and warmer.
And the good thing is all my tips are simple DIYs, which anyone can practice.
I’ll share most of the stuff I learned on how to winterize camping tents while serving in the US army.
We were prohibited from sleeping in our tents unless the temperatures dipped below 20F.
1) Trash bag trick
We would always pack a trash bag when heading out to the winter wilderness.
It serves different reasons, but for winterizing purposes, it would help create more warmth.
We would wrap the lower parts of our sleeping pads with the trash bag when sleeping. It helped to create a vapor barrier and kept the body heat from the lower sections, and would add to the sleeping bag warmth rating.
2) Employ a smart sleeping position
If you’ve slept in a sleeping bag before, you already know your breath is sufficient to cause condensation and sogginess.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to sleep with your nose outside the sleeping bag. You could use balaclava instead to trap the warm air.
3) Use a reflective mylar blanket
Another effective way of dealing with heat loss is through a mylar reflective blanket.
Line the blanket inside your tent, which should help reflect the body heat into the tent.
4) Use a closed-cell foam.
Closed-cell foam for your sleeping pad provides all the warmth you need in your tent.
This thermal mat is ultra-light, rolls nicely, and provides all the warmth you need.
5) Wear dry stuff
This is a no-brainer tip, but most winter campers will often brush it off and enter their tents with soggy clothes.
The problem with jumping in a tent with wet clothes is that they sap the warmth from you and your tent.
6) Use/construct a windbreak
It’s important to get out of the wind when winter camping.
One way to do that is by constructing a windbreak or a shield.
The shield should be between you and the open space.
Alternatively, try setting your tent on a hiking trail with natural windbreakers such as hills and trees.
The windbreakers will block the blowing wind and save you from the chilly conditions.
7) Make fire
Winter campers could also learn to make a fire.
Be sure not to position the fire too close to your tent to avoid burning it.
8) Keep warm by drinking warm liquids
You could also drink warm liquids to keep warm.
I’m a big fan of coffee, and it helps to raise my temperatures.
Of course, you’ll feel the urge to go outside after drinking liquids, and you don’t want that in winter.
Bring an empty bottle with you, and ensure you don’t mix it up with other water bottles.
9) Hot water bottles
Assuming you’ve enough bottles, you could fill some with hot water and stuff them inside your sleeping bag.
Alternatively, you could position them in between your thighs for added warmth.
Exercises are a great way to raise your body temperature.
Pushups are usually my favorite because they don’t require any equipment and are great for getting my circulation going.
They’re particularly handy when I wake up feeling cold and shivering.
However, ensure that you don’t overdo it because exercises may get you sweating. It beats the whole exercising idea because sweating cools you.
11) Proper insulation is key
The final and most important step is ensuring there’s proper insulation.
You could start by covering your entire tent with a heavy-duty blanket to keep all the warm air inside.
Next, ensure all the vents, holes, and spaces are sealed sufficiently to avoid entering cold air or escaping warm air.
Finally, don’t go winter camping alone, especially if it’s your first time.
It’s often easy to miss the hypothermia and dehydration symptoms. In particular, hypothermia will hamper your decision-making abilities, so it’s easy to succumb to the cold.
Do I Need a Four-Season Tent for Winter Camping Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: Can I use a regular tent in the winter?
A: Yes, you can use a regular tent for winter camping. Most 3-season tents are ideal for use in mild and fair winter conditions.
Q: Is a 4-seasons tent worth it?
A: A 4-season tent is worth it, especially if you plan to do some serious alpine mountaineering during winter.
These tents are sturdy and will stand up to the harsh winter conditions.
Q: What tents are good for winter camping?
A: The ideal tents for winter camping are sturdy, waterproof, and warm.
They should stand up to the snow load without compromising their structural integrity. Plus, they shouldn’t allow water inside and should resist wind.
Q: Can you use a summer tent in the winter?
A: No, you cannot use a summer tent in the winter.
Most summer tents are 1 and 2-season tents, and they hardly have the support structure to withstand snow load or the harsh wind.
The 4-season tents are necessary for winter camping.
They’re specifically designed to withstand extreme conditions.
However, depending on the specific winter conditions, some 3-season tents may double up as winter tents.
If the conditions are mild and fair and with no wind blizzards, a 3-season tent can be an awesome choice.