Winter camping is an experience that has numerous challenges and rewards. Cold and wind can create conditions that regular camping tents are not designed to endure. Whether you like hunting, mountaineering, backwoods adventuring, or simply need a tent that can withstand a wide range of weather conditions, 4 season tents are your best option for enjoying the outdoors year-round.
Factors To Look For In 4 Season Tents
If you're new to winter camping, there are some basic safety issues you should be aware of for your own comfort and protection before you consider purchasing your gear.
Be aware that standard warm weather tents will not be able to handle extreme cold, wind, or snow like winter camping tents. When looking at 4 season camping tents, the five factors that will be most important are ventilation, double walled design, the inclusion of a vestibule, the structure and stability of the tent, and the overall weight.
During warm weather camping, tent ventilation is geared towards letting in as much fresh cool air as possible while keeping bugs out. Four season tents normally have a long rain fly that often extends to the ground and large mesh sections are kept to a minimum to help retain heat.
It may seem like the best approach would be to create a winter tent with as little air flow as possible, and if you're wondering why a winter tent would have any mesh openings at all the answer is simple.
Our bodies give off moisture through our breath and through our skin. When this moist warm air comes into contact with the cold fabric of the tent, it condenses out of the air forming water droplets.
This can happen even during warm season camping if it is humid enough, and there are some ways you can reduce condensation inside your tent. But in the winter, not only is it annoying to wake up in a wet tent, it can also be dangerous.
Wet gear, shoes, and sleeping bags aren't easy to dry out in the field and may become unusable when wet. For this reason, a well-designed tent for winter use will have strategically placed vents that allow moisture to leave the tent without letting too much warm air out or allowing strong winds in. A big reason why most winter tents are able to do this is a double wall design.
A lot of camping tents are designed with a single wall: only one layer of fabric with mesh windows and doors and an attached water barrier on the bottom.
This design has some advantages during warm weather camping since it makes the tent easier to set up, lowers the cost of production which in turn makes single-walled tents less expensive, and for ultralight camping, it can significantly reduce the weight of a tent.
There are some winter tents designed in this way, however, your best bet is to purchase a tent with double wall construction.
The inner wall of a double wall tent is usually made from a breathable fabric which attaches to the poles with clips or in such a way that a gap is left between the inner wall and the outer wall, or rain fly, which is made from a wind and water repellent fabric.
This combination allows moist air to exit through the breathable inner wall while the rain fly keeps the tent safe from rain, wind, and snow. Most modern winter tents are designed with a rain fly that extends beyond the inner wall to form a protected vestibule.
Not all winter tents have a vestibule, but they are becoming more popular even in warm weather tents. The vestibule is an enclosed area beyond the inner wall of the tent and provides a dry place to store gear, muddy shoes, and even to cook if weather conditions are harsh.
The dimensions of the vestibule depend on the design of the tent, and some are little more than an extra flap of the rain fly which protects the entrance of the tent.
Structure and Stability
The demand for larger more useful vestibules and the need for lightweight tents that can shoulder heavy snow loads and high winds has resulted in a design evolution in recent decades, and many tent companies have moved away from the traditional two-pole tent with a rectangular footprint.
Domes, bivvy, and low-profile trapezoidal designs maximize interior space while minimizing wind resistance and the number of poles required. More poles offer more stability but also add to the tent's weight and to setup time, so tent designers strive for designs that offer a balance between stability and simplicity.
The best tent structure for you will depend on the number of people in a single tent and the winter area you will be visiting. Dome tents with poles that intersect in several places provide the most interior space and stability and are the best choice for extreme conditions or for sleeping three or more people at a time. Smaller one or two person tents usually have fewer poles and a flatter profile.
Weight should definitely be a consideration when choosing between two similar tents, although weight shouldn't be your primary factor when purchasing a four season tent. Important winter features such as a double wall, a rain fly with a usable vestibule, and extra poles will all add to a tent's weight.
Many companies make use of innovative fabrics and carbon fiber tent poles to reduce weight, but this adds to the tent's price and is the reason why professional quality expedition tents can cost several thousand dollars.
If you plan on using your four season tent regularly or if you will be in subzero areas such as the arctic, at high altitude, or in storm-prone areas where extremely cold or windy weather is likely, then you should invest in a top notch tent. If your needs are less extreme, or if you will only use your winter tent for one or two trips per year, a few ounces of extra weight may be less of a concern.
This tent is a great option for solo campers looking for a lightweight option that packs up small and sets up quickly. The seams are taped to help prevent water from leaking in through the rain fly, and it comes with a repair kit for in the field fixes.
The DAC Featherlight NSL poles are anodized aluminum to prevent rusting, and because of the simple structure of this bivvy-style tent, there are only two short poles to contend with.
Unfortunately, there isn't much room for gear inside of the tent or in the small vestibule, and because the interior space is so small, it cannot effectively hold heat or dissipate moisture like larger tents making it more difficult to stay warm and dry. Furthermore, it can be difficult to get in or out of such a small tent.
- Lightweight, packs up small
- Ideal for solo adventuruers
- Quick setup
- Difficult to get in and out
- Small confines leave little room for gear and make it difficult to keep warm
The Alps Tasmanian offers room for two, and has a free standing pole system that makes it quick and easy to set up even during rough weather. It provides a more interior room than a traditional two pole tent design and has two entrances and two vestibules.
The dome is high enough that campers will be able to sit up inside of the tent, making it more comfortable than low profile tents. Because it is designed to be lightweight, however, it is still a very small space and may feel too confining for two people.
- Comparatively lightweight, packs up small
- Two entrances and two large vestibules
- Easy to sit up inside
- Small confines may be uncomfortable
Suitable for three people, the High Peak South Col has several clever features such as a clip pole design with ring and pin pole connectors to make setup quick and easy. The two pole inner structure is typical of most tents, but an added pole allows for an extensive vestibule entryway with more than enough room for gear.
Guy lines are well placed to keep the tent stable in high winds and the rain fly is long, and snow or pine needles could easily be banked around it to keep the wind from entering the tent. The biggest downside to this tent is its weight. At over 9 lbs, it's a hefty addition to anyone's pack. It is also a bad choice for anyone who wishes to use their tent year round, as it doesn't do well in warm weather.
- Lots of interior space
- Incredibly large vestibule entryway
- Performs well in cold weather
- Quite heavy
- Doesn't perform well in hot weather
The Eureka Alpenlite is an A-Frame style tent that can sleep two. Clips and grommet corner attachments make this tent easy to set up during extreme weather, and the pole configuration makes it ideal for turbulent winds or heavy snow.
The Alpenlite does have two vestibules, although the rear vestibule can only be accessed from outside the tent and is only large enough to hold a pair of boots. The front vestibule is larger, but not by much.
Indeed, although the Alpenlite is advertised as a two person tent, if either person is tall or if you are carrying a lot of gear, there may not be much room left in the tent. At 7lbs 7oz, it is not the lightest two person tent on the market, but neither is it the heaviest. Overall, the Eureka Alpenlite offers a useful amount of room at a practical weight.
- Lots of interior space if you don't have lots of gear
- Performs well in cold or warm weather
- Easy to set up even during extreme weather
- Small vestibules
- Somewhat heavy
If you are planning a group trip or if your whole family will be enjoying winter camping together, you'll need the comfort and space of a large tent. Big Agnes is known for producing classic cross-pole igloo style structures typical of modern expedition tents.
The Flying Diamond 8 Person Tent is no exception and relies on a cross braced pole design to keep it supported in snowy or windy conditions. It has enough headroom to allow standing and free movement within, and a large vestibule for gear storage.
Although this tent tops out at over 20 lbs, it will sleep eight comfortably. Considering the weight of the average two person tent, you can see how it's possible to carry less weight by using one large tent instead during a group trip.
- Lots of interior space and room to stand
- Well-braced cross pole design
- Designed for extreme weather
- Impractical for small groups
- Somewhat difficult to set up
Ultimately the best winter camping tent for you will depend on where you plan to camp, how many people will sleep in the tent, and how much weight you are willing to carry. For most people, however, the Alps Mountaineering Tasmanian 2 Tent is the clear winner among the five tents listed above. With excellent features such as the free standing pole system which allows for easy setup and two entrances with large vestibules, this tent has everything you and a buddy will need to make the most of your outdoor winter adventures.