Tent shopping can be a fun yet slightly overwhelming experience – with so many options on the market these days, it can be hard to know what to go for. As well as choosing what size, color, and style tent you’d like, there are technical factors to consider too.
One thing you’ll notice when you’re shopping around is that tents come with a season rating, and the most common ratings are 3- and 4-season tents… But what do these ratings actually mean? Here, we’ll run through what season ratings actually refer to, as well as summarizing the main differences between 3 and 4 season tents, to make sure that you can find the tent that’s right for you.
At first glance, this might seem like a silly question – 4-season tents are surely designed for 4-season use whereas 3-season tents are designed for just three, right? Kind of, but things aren’t quite that simple. Which three seasons are 3-season tents designed for? Are 4-season tents suited to some seasons more than others? Plus, seasons vary depending on where you are – you can get hot yet very rainy summers and cold yet dry winters, so which tent should you go for? And how on earth do 5-season tents work?
The simplest way to answer these questions is to think about tents in terms of their ability to stand up to tough weather (with 1-season tents having a low ability and 5-season tents having a very high ability). Although both 3- and 4-season tents should be able to stand up to rain, wind, and even light snow, 4-season tents are generally much warmer and can stand up to more extreme weather, while 3-season tents are lighter and better ventilated. So, let’s take a look at these types of tents in more detail and weigh up some of their pros and cons.
Three-season tents are the most common type of tent among casual campers thanks to their versatile nature. Although their outer layers (aka rainflys) can keep rain, wind, and even snow out, they’re designed with the warmer seasons of spring, summer, and fall in mind. This means that they’re designed to be breathable too, and this is typically achieved via a mesh inner layer that allows air to flow. To further increase ventilation, you’ll often see that there’s a slight gap between the rainfly and the ground. This breathability means that you won’t overheat in sunny weather, and it also allows condensation to escape at night. It’s also great for anyone who likes to stargaze, as you can hip off the rainfly, kick back, and admire the night sky (while the mesh keeps you safe from bugs).
Mesh is also a very lightweight material, which reduces the overall weight of 3-season tents and makes them a great choice for backpackers (or anyone who doesn’t like carrying heavy things). To really capitalize on this advantage, many 3-season tents are paired up with other lightweight materials, such as thinner floors and lighter poles, but be aware that, unless you pay a premium, these thinner materials won’t be as durable as thicker fabrics.
In contrast, 4-season tents are designed to provide shelter even in the harshest of environments. As well as rain and wind, 4-season tents should keep you safe in storms and heavy snow. Plus, they should be able to keep you warm in frosty climates. To provide this added protection, they tend to be constructed from thicker, more durable materials than 3-season tents. This means that the rainfly will likely have a thicker dernier (which means that it’s constructed from thicker fibers). Furthermore, to keep you warm, the body of the tent will have far less mesh than you’ll see on a 3-season tent – perhaps just a small panel at the top somewhere. The rainfly and vestibules will also extend right to the ground to prevent any drafts. On top of that, you’ll often find that 4-season tents rely on more poles for their construction, which keeps them grounded and able to withstand heavy winds.
Although these features provide fantastic weather protection, the term ‘4-season’ is a little misleading. The stiffer outer fabrics and lack of a mesh-heavy interior massively restrict airflow in and out of the tent. There is usually some form of ventilation, such as vents in the rainfly, but considerably less than you’ll see on a 3-season tent. This means that 4-season tents don’t perform as well in warmer conditions, and you might find yourself overheating. So remember, ‘4-season’ doesn’t really mean this is a great tent for all of the 4-seasons – it means it offers better protection from the cold, rain, wind, and snow than a 3-season tent.
The thicker outer and inner fabrics and a greater number of tent poles also mean that 4-season tents typically cost more than 3-season ones, and they tend to weigh a lot more too. Although there are lightweight 4-season tents out there, light, durable, and highly weatherproof materials are not cheap to come by, so you’ll have to shell out a lot for them.
So what does this mean overall? If you’re likely to end up camping in cold, stormy weather, then you should definitely pick yourself up a 4-season tent. For everything else, you may as well shed some pounds and save some dollars by picking up a 3-person tent. Bear in mind though, that not all 3-person tents are created equal – the level of weather protection varies considerably, so don’t assume you’ll be protected as long as you aren’t camping halfway up Everest. Make sure you check out the waterproof ratings, as the cheaper options will only stand up to very light rain (which is fine if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with great weather). One of our favorite budget 3-season tents is the Featherstone 2 Person Backpacking Tent, which is light and airy yet has a decent waterproof rating of 3,000 mm too – perfect for warm, soggy outings. If you have slightly more cash to splash, then check out the MSR Hubba Hubba NX which is even lighter and also has good weather resistance.
Finally, don’t despair if you’re looking for something with a high level of protection that you can take along backpacking – there are some options out there for you too. For instance, the Black Diamond Eldorado tent offers an awesome combination of weather protection and portability – perfect for those alpine adventures.
Anna is the co-owner of expert world travel and can't wait to share her travel experience with the world. With over 54 countries under her belt she has a lot to write about! Including those insane encounters with black bears in Canada.