Choices are great until they get overwhelming. And while it may seem like a small decision, picking the right tent is very important. The wrong tent can leave you too hot, cold, wet, or generally miserable. Categorizing tents by season is one of the main ways manufacturers tell you what kind of situation the tent is made for.
New and even seasoned hikers may not fully understand the difference between three-season and four-season tents. Between the dozens of gear choices you need to make for backpacking, it’s not really all that surprising.
In this guide, I’ll help lay out what the differences are and why choosing the right tent helps create a positive camping experience.
Understanding 2-Season, 3-Season, And 4-Season Tents
There are several ways that tents are rated, and one of them is by season. Some types of tents are great for warm weather, while others can be used in every season. A two-season tent should only be used for warm spring and summer camping. It will have an abundance of mesh, which increases ventilation and helps keep your tent cool.
Three-season tents use more nylon and polyester, which increases weather protection and durability. They can be used through the fall and can handle rain showers. Like two-season tents, they also feature some mesh, so they won’t be ideal for winter camping. Four-season tents are the most durable of the bunch and can be used all year long, even in the snow.
3-Season Tents: Common Features
- Designed for use in the spring, summer, and fall
- Profile skews lightweight, not suitable for extreme weather
- Tent poles are light, made from aluminum or carbon fiber
- The tent body is usually made with mesh, nylon, and/or polyester
- Comes with a rain fly to handle moderate weather (rain showers and light rain)
- The rain fly covers all the mesh areas but may not cinch down to the ground
- Easy to set up
- Good for most common camping situations (NOT mountaineering or heavy snow)
- Small but effective vestibules for personal gear
4-Season Tents: Common Features
- Designed for use all year long
- Lower profile for less wind resistance
- The rain fly or weather protection layer reaches all the way down to the ground to provide continuous coverage
- Thick and durable, meant to handle extreme weather (heavy snowfall, heavy rain, etc.)
- Much less mesh than a three-season tent
- Heavier & often more expensive
- Suitable as a mountaineering tent & for winter adventures
- Less useful in very hot environments (i.e., deserts, hot/humid summers)
- Larger vestibules for gear and activities
Weather Compatibility: 3 Season Vs. 4 Season Tents
Both three-season and four-season tents come with features to deal with weather outdoors. A three-season tent can be thought of as a backpacking tent since that is what you will most likely use it for. You can count on three-season tents being able to provide adequate durability, weather resistance or waterproofing, and better ventilation on hot days.
A four-season tent, also called a winter tent, is for mountaineering or snow camping and can handle extreme weather. With a heavier design, the four-season tent can withstand driving rain, snow, wind, and cold weather. Unless you're attempting a significant peak in challenging alpine conditions, you’ll likely opt for the three-season.
While three-season tents aren’t meant for the winter, if you live in an area with mild winter temperatures and a low chance of snow, you could use one all year round. The same can be said for four-season tents, although in very hot environments, the lack of mesh and heavier weight will spike temperatures inside the tent.
It’s also good practice to make sure that the tent you’re interested in comes with a rain fly or that you can buy one as an add-on.
Ventilation & Insulation: 3 Seasons Vs. 4 Season Tents
Both three-season and four-season tents have some features that help with ventilation. These usually come in the form of mesh or vents positioned in the canopy area or near the ground. Three-season tents make much more use of ventilation features.
Four-season tents are heavier and use strong materials to handle extreme conditions. This means they feature less mesh and ventilation, which consequently keeps the inside of the tent warmer. If you have low temperatures and the chance of snowy precip, this option is great! I’d opt for a four-season tent when mountaineering, ski touring, or any cold weather objectives.
Portability & Weight: Which Tent To Choose?
Generally speaking, both tents are portable enough to carry on backpacking adventures. However, four-season tents are going to be heavier because of their ability to withstand strong wind and lower temperatures. There are lightweight versions of both, but there are far more lightweight three-season tent options than four.
If weight concerns are top of mind, and the forecast isn’t extreme, I’d opt for a three-season tent. In fact, if you are camping in a warm or mild climate, it’s possible to use a three-season tent all year. Four-season tents are made with heavy, stronger materials to combat extreme mountain weather.
Depending on how you use a four-season tent, you may want to split components up between your group to drop overall pack weight. This is especially true for week-long hunts or setting up a basecamp that you’ll be at for several nights.
Ease Of Pitching: 3 Season Vs. 4 Season Tents
Setting up a tent can be a quick endeavor. But sometimes you roll into camp way after dark, and you want a quick way to get into your home for the night. In those scenarios, three-season tents are generally easier to set up. They usually use aluminum poles that break down into smaller sizes and snap into place.
Four-season tent poles are often made from carbon fiber or aluminum alloy for extra strength. They don’t snap into place as easily and require a bit more of an operation to set up. When you do, however, the tent will be able to withstand heavy snow buildup and punishing winds. But setting up a three-season tent is easier.
Durability & Cost: Investment Vs. Requirements
Four-season tents tend to weigh and cost more because they use more material. There is a caveat, however. The ultralight revolution has turbocharged prices for tents that cut weight. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher at first, but a top-of-the-line lightweight tent could easily be as expensive as a mid-range four-season tent.
Now, if durability is top of mind, take a good look at four-season options. These heavier-duty tents are great for any tough, off-trail, or alpine backpacking trip. The type you choose will ultimately depend on the type of adventure and environment you regularly go into.
Making The Right Choice For Your Outdoor Adventures
To choose the best tent for your specific requirements you need to take an objective and realistic look at what you’re likely to do in the outdoors. Despite all the advice your fellow hikers give you, if you’re not doing what they’re doing, it’s incomplete advice. The best strategy is to be honest with yourself.
If you’re going to be climbing a big snowy mountain, get a four-season tent. If you’re by the creek in hot weather and need something to pass out in, three-season is fine. Desert recreationists, ultralight aficionados, and casual campers will be drawn to three-season tents. Mountaineers may opt for four-season tents.
Recap: 3-Season Tents Vs. 4-Season Tents
Before running off to purchase your next three or four-season tent, ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I need my next tent to be able to withstand strong wind and snowy conditions?
- Do I need thicker material when breathable mesh would work just as well?
- How far am I likely to carry a backpacking tent?
- Will a few saved ounces justify an increase in price?
- How often am I going to go backpacking?
- Where do I live, and what kind of climate will I be backpacking in?
- What’s the tent's return policy if I am unsatisfied?
Unless you’re a mountaineer, consider getting a well-rounded non-ultralight three-season tent. In the future, if you need more durability (or less weight), there are plenty of four-season tents to sink your teeth into.
Check out our companion articles to dive a little deeper into the world of tents:
*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.