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Do you need a four-season tent for winter camping?

Views of a snowy forest from inside a tent
Do you need a four-season tent for winter camping? And can you actually use it the other three months of the year? We help you figure it all out (Image credit: Mumemories)

If you have no intention of packing away your camping gear come the colder months, you might be considering investing in a four-season tent to help you weather the winter outdoors. All of the best brands of tents make three-season tents, which provide shelter during the rainy spring, ventilation throughout the hot summer and offer some mild protection from cold fall winds. Some brands also make 4-season tents, which you’d assume would do all of the above, as well as protect you against bone-chilling cold, drifting snow and high winds.

But if you stop and think about it for a minute, that’s quite a lot to ask from a piece of canvas and a couple of poles, isn’t it? So what does it actually do, and do you need a four-season tent for winter camping? Let’s take a look at these tents, and find out when they’re a good idea for camping, and when your three-season tent will suffice.

Solar panel charger with tent in background at remote campsite

If you have no intention of packing away your camping gear come the colder months, you might be considering investing in a four-season tent to help you weather the winter outdoors (Image credit: Cavan Images)

What makes a tent four-season?

Confusingly, even though a three-season tent is a fairly accurate description of its purpose, a four-season tent isn’t necessarily optimal for camping in all four seasons. A four-season tent is perhaps more accurately a winter tent, designed to withstand cold, snow and winds. That doesn’t mean it’s insulated, however it features sturdier fabric with fewer mesh panels to keep cold wind out and body heat in. Of course, a good 4-season tent will be waterproof with taped seams, while stronger poles hold up against the weight of snow and force of wind. These tents often have a lower profile to help maintain structural integrity when you're camping in windy conditions. You’ll often find that four-season tents have a roomier design or an added vestibule that is sometimes removable, assuming that in winter you’ll be camping with more gear that needs to come inside with you. 

In case it’s not obvious, four-season tents are usually a bit bulkier and weigh more than three-season tents that sleep the same number of people. They can, however, come in both double and single-walled designs and various sizes starting with one-person backpacking models, so don’t assume they’re all mammoth-sized. 

Person drinking tea outside their tent in winter

A four-season tent is perhaps more accurately a winter tent, designed to withstand cold, snow and winds (Image credit: mixetto)

How much warmer is a four-season tent?

As we’ve already mentioned, the warmth provided by a four-season tent largely comes from its ability to block wind and trap body heat better, as opposed to it actually being warm. How much warmer a four-season tent is really depends on various factors such as the outside temperature, the availability of sunlight, the tent construction and how many people are in the tent, as the results of a research project by the University of Canterbury (opens in new tab) discovered. 

In extreme conditions, it’s fair to say that a four-season tent will likely provide more protection against the cold than a more breathable three-season tent, but it’s impossible to say exactly how many degrees we’re talking about here. Truly, staying warm in a tent mostly comes from your sleeping pad, sleeping bag and clothes in either tent, so you’ll definitely want to look into a really warm sleeping bag, such as the Mountain Hardware Phantom 0F, if you're going to be camping in extreme cold.

A bright orange tent among snow covered trees, on a snowy ridge overlooking a mountain

If you’re planning on winter camping in alpine zones, a four-season tent would be a really good idea (Image credit: Mint Images - Michael Hanson)

Do you need a 4-season tent for winter camping?

To answer the original question, the answer is, it really depends where you’re winter camping because as you know, winter is not the same everywhere. Let’s say you’re planning on pitching your tent at low (or even medium) elevation somewhere like northern California, Zion National Park, Scotland or the Lake District. While any of these places can experience weather extremes, the chances are you could get away with using a three-season tent and have no problems, or just wait for a half-decent weekend to go camping. 

However, if you’re planning on winter camping in alpine zones, above treeline,  in places that experience a lot of snow – let’s say the Rockies in Colorado, Wyoming or Montana – then a four-season tent would be a really good idea. That said, a tent that traps body heat better might not be ideal in those same locations come the warmer months, when its lower breathability would have you sweltering away. So if you are planning on camping year-round and at high altitude in winter, a four-season tent would be useful, but you wouldn’t actually use it for the other seasons and would probably want a three-season tent anyway. For a one-off winter expedition, you’d be much better off renting a winter tent than buying one.

Julia Clarke is a staff writer for Advnture.com and the author of the book Restorative Yoga for Beginners. She loves to explore mountains on foot, bike, skis and belay and then recover on the the yoga mat. Julia graduated with a degree in journalism in 2004 and spent eight years working as a radio presenter in Kansas City, Vermont, Boston and New York City before discovering the joys of the Rocky Mountains. She then detoured west to Colorado and enjoyed 11 years teaching yoga in Vail before returning to her hometown of Glasgow, Scotland in 2020 to focus on family and writing.