Q&A: What Makes a Tent Four-Season?

Occasionally we receive outdoor gear questions from readers. Since we figured others would find them useful too, we’ll share some of those Q&A’s here. If you think we missed the mark, let us know by leaving a comment.


I own four tents. Three of those tents are three-season, and one is a four-season. One tent is a child's tent that is waterproof, without a fly. I have yet to find a definition of what qualifies a tent to be three-season and what qualifies for a four-season. My four-season is a Eureka K2-XT, with dome fly and vestibule. One of my three-season tents also has a dome fly with vestibule and the other has a fly that is heavy duty but is open in front of the door, without a vestibule.

Richard S.


Four-season tents typically have more and/or stronger poles and a rounded dome to withstand heavy snow loads and high winds. They are the heaviest and sturdiest of tents, expedition versions being the strongest of all. Four-season tents can be used year-round, but are generally too hot and heavy for warm weather due to their lack of ventilation.

Three-season tents are designed for spring, summer, and fall use and may be a dome, tunnel, hybrid, or single-hoop design. They’re not designed to withstand heavy snow loads, but most should hold up to a light early- or late-season snowfall. Three-season tents are designed with more ventilation than four-season tents, so they stay cooler and are less likely to build up condensation. (Warm weather tents have the most ventilation of all though.)

If you want to bridge the gap, there also are 3-4 season convertible tents that convert from four-season to three-season use with the removal of a couple of poles or zip-off panels. They tend to be heavier than standard three-season models, but offer greater versatility than a three- or four-season tent alone.

Filed under: Gear News


Bill S
4,419 reviewer rep
6,010 forum posts
January 22, 2007 at 9:40 p.m. (EST)

Good definition of 3 and 4 season. But when judging the suitability of the tent for your purposes, one thing that is often overlooked (and comment on by me in my review to the Kelty Windfoil 3) is being able to set the tent up is less than optimal conditions. In my view, if a tent is claimed to be a 4-season expedition tent, it should be relatively easy to set up in storm conditions and/or when arriving after dark following a long, hard day on the trail or climb. Thus, tents that use clips (such as Sierra Designs and Mountain Hardwear expedition tents) can be staked out to hold them in place in the wind, and the poles easily put in place and the tent clipped to them. Or the Bibler and Integral Designs tents which can be staked out, your gear and you climbing inside and the poles placed from inside the tent.

Sleeves for poles require a bit more work, but have advantages when the tent is fully up, if insertion of the pole ends into their grommets or pockets is not too much of a struggle. North Face, among others, uses sleeves for the poles on their expedition tents. You can stake down two or more corners with their tents, then insert the poles, making erection in a storm relatively easy (putting up a tent in a storm is never really easy - this is just a relative comparison).

Most hoop or tunnel tents are much more of a struggle to erect in sub-optimal conditions. A prime example is the Kelty Windfoil 3 I reviewed, following our usage of them in Antarctica. We found the poles hard to fully seat, especially when in a moderate (20-30 knot) wind. It was necessary to insert the poles before staking out the tent, and even staking a single point made inserting the poles even more of a struggle. We had to have at least two people, and often 3 hanging onto the tent to get it up. Even in dead calm conditions, putting it up was a struggle for a single person. As I said in my review, the tent was stable once fully erected and guyed. But ease of use that is so necessary for an expedition tent was lacking.

There are other criteria, of course, as mentioned in the article, many of which are equally important - wind shedding, snow load, ease of entry and exit without letting snow or rain in, and so on.

Alicia MacLeay (Alicia)
848 reviewer rep
3,901 forum posts
January 23, 2007 at 9:10 a.m. (EST)

Thanks for those adding those great practical points, Bill.


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