How to Choose The best 4-Season Shelter
The "4" in 4-season shelter comes from a reference that any model with this claim should be able to be used in "all 4-seasons", though most are geared for winter conditions. Shelters that claim 4-season use are nearly always more robust than 3-season models and will be better in higher winds, more resistant to snow loading, and generally are warmer with less venting options.
While the name 4-season makes one think of winter, people tend to use them in more mountainous environments above treeline terrain, which can have "winter-like" conditions at any point of the year. People use 4-season tents when mountaineering, on multi-day ski tours, and on winter camping where their tent is likely to be exposed to wind, heavy rain, or snow — more so than while typically backpacking.
Three main types of 4-season tents
While there is no distinct line; 4-season tents group themselves into three areas.
Bivy Tents — as the name would imply, these models are geared towards shorter trips, with only a handful of nights spent in them on any given trip. Bivy tents prioritize low weight and a minimal packed size over comfort and sometimes stormworthiness, though many are made to be quite strong. Bivy tents nearly always have only two poles fashioned in an "X" shape (though in a few rare cases they do have three) as this is the most efficient use of materials and weight relative to interior space.
Bivy tents are almost always single wall, as single wall tents are lighter and more compact, and the reduced versatility of this construction is well worth the weight savings. Bivy tents tend to be less versatile, smaller, and less comfortable to hang out in.
Expedition Shelters — are best for trips in extreme alpine environments where strength, and to a lesser extent, comfort, supersedes weight and packed size in order of priority. These shelters are built for longer trips, so they tend to offer more spacious interiors and bigger vestibules for cooking and storing gear, and are characterized by their strong, albeit often heavier designs. More expedition focused tents have at least three poles but more commonly have four in the body and often a fifth to support a "hooped" vestibule. Buy a bivy tent for summertime alpine climbing trips or multi-day ski tours where you are likely to have to travel in a lot of technical terrains with your tent on your back or any trip where weight savings is paramount.
These tents are more frequently double wall in design as it increases their versatility, and minimal weight is less of a big deal than with other models. There are certainly exceptions like the Black Diamond Fitzroy. Buy an expedition shelter if you are planning a trip to places like the Alaska range, higher peaks the Andes or Himilaya, or Antarctica, where the increased strength will be unquestionably worth it.
All-Mountain — also sometimes called all-season tents are lighter duty than their expedition focused counterparts but also slightly heavier, more versatile, and more livable than a pure bivy tent. In reality, these tents are the types of shelters that most people use, whether that be for summertime alpine climbing, multiday ski tours, or winter camping below treeline.
Most of the applications of a bivy tent can be accomplished with an all-season tent, but a 4 season tent is just a little heavier nicer to hang out in, especially at lower elevation buggy camps. However, most all-season shelters can't replace a true expedition tent as they are rarely strong enough for these types of uses. Buy an all-season shelter if you tend to go on summertime mountaineering trips or multi-day ski tours in places like the Sierra, Cascades, Tetons, and the Canadian Rockies.
We included both single and double wall models in our comparison. The difference at first glance is as simple as it sounds in the names.
Single wall shelters have one layer of wind and water-resistance or waterproof fabric, and are supported by poles that can be inside or outside of the fabric.
Double-wall tents have two layers: an inner tent made of water-resistant (never waterproof) but more breathable nylon, and an outer waterproof rain fly. In most cases, the poles are held in place with sleeves or clips on the body, and then a waterproof rain fly covers the whole thing. A handful of models use a slightly different design with the poles attached to the fly, with the body hanging suspended from the inside.
Single Wall vs. Double Wall
Choosing between a single and double wall tent is a pretty critical decision, with each construction type offering fairly distinct advantages.
Double Wall Tents
Double-wall tents perform better in a broader range of conditions because there are two layers of fabric between you and elements. This creates a more comfortable space to live, with the most notable advantage coming in warmer, wetter conditions (handling internal condensation better). The inner tent provides condensation-limiting breathability while the outer tent supplies the weather protection. The inner tent is water repellant and breathable; it lets vapor pass through but prevents condensed water from falling on you (most of the time). Double-wall tents tend to be strong, but this is more a product of what they are designed for rather than two walls, actually making them stronger.
They are, however, generally more durable and warmer. They also have the advantage of being able to replace the fly when it wears out. With proper care, a double-wall tent can typically last longer, since you can replace the part that sees the most UV damage.
Single Wall Tents
At some point, your desired adventure crosses a threshold where saving weight is more important than comfort, space, versatility, and/or durability. This is where single-wall tents excel. Single wall tents usually have smaller footprints, which allow them to be pitched in tight spaces, whether that be squeezed between boulders or small ledges.
We favor single wall tents for shorter trips or when moving fast and light. Single wall models are also nice when the only sites available are small platforms carved out on a rocky moraine or a tiny ledge. Our review team generally opts for single wall models when we are planning a night or two out at a time, and the weather is generally good. This is why single-wall tents are generally more popular in the mountains of the lower-48 states and Southern Canada; many people going out on shorter duration trips and are pickier about their weather (and would rather save a little extra weight and packed volume).
Single wall tents are generally a lot less versatile; with a few exceptions, they simply don't handle condensation and suffer the most in warmer, wetter climates. Many of them don't pass moisture as well as their double-wall counterparts and don't have as many ventilation options (or sometimes even a bug screen) to help let internal moisture out. If you do plan to use a single wall tent in warmer-three season climates and don't mind a little extra weight, make sure to buy one with good ventilation options and/or big doors, as this will help them dramatically in these sorts of conditions. It's worth noting that while heavier, the Black Diamond single wall models that use Todd-tex certainly breathe the best of any single wall model. The little micro hairs built into this fabric wick moisture through the walls and handle internal condensation far more effectively than other fabrics.
Single wall models are generally smaller, so logging a lot of time in them isn't as sweet. For expeditions, double-wall tents are easily worth their additional weight and bulk. For shorter trips, we like saving a little weight and packed volume and don't find the reduced versatility or comfort warrants a double-wall tent (most of the time).
Not all single wall tents are created equal; some are designed to be as light as possible, while others offer significantly more versatility and performance in 3-season conditions. Make sure to read the individual reviews and look at our scoring metrics, as the range in which they perform across conditions varies more than double-wall models.
Bivy or Tarp versus a Tent
A tarp is the lightest possible shelter and can work well if the weather is relatively good. However, for those who have been caught camped above treeline, trying to find camp on a rocky moraine with only a tarp can attest that it is pretty tough to stay dry. It is also MUCH colder as no heat is being trapped around you. Tarps also take more time to pitch and can be challenging, especially above treeline or where space is limited. Tarps have the disadvantage of offering no bug or rodent protection, which can range from a non-issue to a dealbreaker, depending on where you are headed.
An ex,ception to this can be when camped on snow that isn't late-season glacier ice. In these instances, you can dig out the shape of your tarp or tarp tent and get reasonable space, warmth, and weather protection for a reasonable effort. It still won't be as quick and easy to set up as a single wall tent, but it will save room in your pack and take the weight off your shoulder straps.
This is a particular tactic while multi-day ski touring for 2-3 nights.
Two superlight bivy sacks are slightly lighter than a weight-focused two-pole tent. However, two more deluxe-style bivy sacks (like the ones with poles) weigh around the same as some of the lighter tents or, in some cases are even heavier. This is one of the main reasons why bivy sacks have fallen a little out of favor over the last 5-8 years as two-person tents have gotten lighter and are generally more comfortable and warmer. Bivy sacks still have their place, like on tiny ledges where there isn't enough room to pitch a tent, or for a solo traveler going as light as possible.
Pole design and how they facilitate the shape of your shelter have the second-largest impact on your tent's shape, ability to resist wind, and overall functionality. Pole design defines the shelter's strength, and in some way, influences just about every feature. There are three classic designs: two poles that cross once in the center, three poles where two cross in the center, and the third is an off-set up-side-down "u". There are, of course, many other variations on these basic three designs, some of which are more successful or have specific advantages over others.
As a general rule, more full-length pole crossings and poles equal greater strength. There are of course there are some exceptions. With that said, every model in this review is capable of handling 4-season weather. They will all do fine with moderate snow-loading and 40-50 mph winds and will keep most of the weather out. In reality, this is more than enough for most of our needs. They are not all ideal for camping at 17,000 ft on Denali, traveling to Antarctica, or being pitched in some other fairly extreme mountain environment.
In our opinion, the highest quality poles are DAC Featherlite NSL Green; they're thicker and stronger. With that said, we must say we are impressed with the new Easton Cyclone composite poles that are being used by MSR. These poles are extremely strong and can flex further before breaking (compared to traditional aluminum poles), which we find to be a huge advantage. It will be interesting to see if other manufacturers follow-suit with similar designs down the road.
Above, we talk about more full-length poles equal strength. Partial length poles are great ways to create more headroom while adding only minimal weight, but these designs generally create little sails and are nearly always less resistant to strong winds than models with a similar design and a full-length pole in their place.
Internal Pole Set-up
This design is commonly used in single wall designs such as the Black Diamond Fitzroy, Eldorado, and Firstlight. Models that have poles that pitch from the inside are are strong as the fabric of the tent wall itself. They do a good job supporting the pole as they have continuous contact with the walls. While simple, this design unquestionably generates a tremendous amount of strength and is typically lighter than those that pitch from outside.
Why aren't all models designed like this? Well, the primary downside of this design is they are harder, more complicated, and more time consuming to set up. It is also quite easy to accidentally puncture a tent wall or floor if you're not careful while erecting it. The other disadvantage is if the weather is super stormy, it's harder to not get some snow or rain inside as the door needs to be open while you pitch it. Black Diamond is the primary company using this design in all of their single-wall tents, though it used to be more popular.
Exterior Pole set-up
Exterior pole set up refers to poles that are attached to the outside of the body or the fly of the tent, using pole clips or pole sleeves to hold the tent in place. In most cases, the poles are between the body and the fly, but Hilleberg's poles attach on top of the fly, and the body is suspended on the inside.
Pole sleeves are slightly stronger, as they more evenly distribute force across the entire pole; in windy conditions, they can be more challenging to set-up and potentially dangerous for the poles during the process. During set-up, when only one pole is inserted, the poles are far less supported and are more susceptible to being broken by wind, as a tent with one pole acts pretty similar to a kite. Pole clips are quicker, easier, and safer to pitch than sleeves, as you can start clipping all sides of the tent up the pole at a similar level (to better protect it from becoming a kite or the poles getting bent).
The best pole design combines the attributes of a single wall tent (fast and easy to pitch) with the strength and durability of a double-wall tent. Hilleberg does this with stunning grace. Both the Tarra and Jannu are a cinch to pitch and are incredibly fast to take down; they also provide incredible protection from the elements.
Outer Tent (Rain Fly)
The outer tent is a waterproof fabric most often made from polyurethane or silicone-treated ripstop nylon or polyester. Outer tents shed rain, snow, ice, and wind. Single wall tents have one layer of fabric, which is more often than not a three-layer waterproof-breathable material. In double wall tents, the outer tent adds stability and strength by attaching to the inner tent and being guyed out to the ground. All double wall tents have a vestibule, or porch as they say in the UK. Vestibules provide a dry space for entry/exit, gear storage, and cooking. Most vestibules are made of the same material as the outer tent.
As we breathe, we release warm, humid air. When this air rises and hits the much colder tent wall, it condenses sticks to it. It can even freeze if the temperature is cold enough. After sufficient buildup of frozen condensation, water vapor from your breath will hit the wall, freeze, and rain back down upon you like snow. This scenario is often too common when camping in cold climates and can be uncomfortable; you may also find your sleeping bag is wet or the tent is heavier due to the accumulated moisture.
The ability for a tent to properly ventilate and thus appropriately manage condensation requires enough airflow to carry water vapor out of the tent - before it condenses on the tent walls. While both are important, we've found that vents are more effective than breathable fabrics at reducing condensation; the more vents, the better. The North Face Assault 2 features four vents each, and several of them were well-covered for stormy conditions. The Hilleberg Tarra and Jannu, the best venting double-wall tents in our review, each have a large port in the center of the roof.
Features turn a good tent into a great one, but in the grand scheme are much less of a big deal when compared to pole design. The pendulum can swing too far, and some manufacturers go overboard with lots of pockets or other rarely usable features, which only make a tent heavier. We do appreciate some well-placed, supportive pockets and a good entrance; even a small window can be a nice touch. We certainly don't mind small features which don't add much weight, like glow-in-the-dark zipper pulls, which as far as we can tell, are the same weight as a normal zipper pull but easier to see once the sun has set.
Trips with perfect weather will make you wonder why you'd ever need to bring a vestibule, while a rainy outing will make you see why every 4-season shelter has one built in, or may offer it for an additional cost.
In reality, for any extended or stormy trip, a vestibule is fully worth the weight. However, for the types of trips that many people embark on, we like a removable one, which can be brought along when a trip calls for it, or left at home when it doesn't. Of course, it's a nice bonus when a vestibule is included, like with The North Face Assault or Nemo Tenshi.
Having a non-built-in vestibule is nice because it allows you to save 1-1.5 pounds by leaving it behind, which is often the case if you are only going on a 1-2 night trip with excellent weather. However, it can be nice for longer adventures or when you find yourself "base-camping" with a little more stuff.
For expedition-style tents, vestibules are ideal and are bordering on essential. This lets you store your potentially wet gear and gives you a protected place to cook, or a place to change out of snowy boots and jackets before entering the dry interior of your sheltered home.
Weight is an important factor for shorter duration trips; weight helps for long approaches or even more so on a carry-up-and-over climb. However, being too obsessed with weight can have detrimental and uncomfortable consequences. There's no reason for a lightweight tent if you primarily camp out of your car, or you're on a three-week expedition where you aren't moving your tent much. Conversely, if you are traveling to a fairly extreme alpine environment, skimping on strength for weight will doom you to failure and can be dangerous.
A lighter tent is the easiest way to reduce pack weight (via one item). Going light in the mountains is known to be easier on your body and therefore allows you to move faster. Generally speaking, as tents get lighter, they typically make some type of sacrifice. That sacrifice normally comes in the form of stormworthiness, versatility, or comfort. How much sacrifice you might be willing to make in any of these categories depends on you and the terrain you wish to use it in.
The Black Diamond Firstlight is a good example, as it is one of the lightest and most compressible two-person, freestanding four-season tent on the market. It sacrifices many things, including comfort and water resistance, for its gaunt three-pound package. The strongest models for extended trips are The North Face Mountain 25, and the Hilleberg Jannu, which weigh in the 8-9 pound range.
This review is filled with many models that fit across a broad spectrum, from the lightest and most compressible to the heaviest and most expedition worthy. Several all-rounders are the Black Diamond Eldorado, Nemo Tenshi, and MSR Access 2; all-around 4-5 pounds. However, if all you do is alpine climb in the summer with the occasional multi-day ski trip, we'd recommend going light with a model like the Black Diamond Firstlight or The North Face Assault, which weigh around three pounds.
Guying Out the Tent
Properly guying out a four-season tent is critical to your comfort and the tent's longevity. Spectra guylines (strong, light, don't absorb water) and camming adjusters are the easiest and best method for tensioning guylines. On snow or sand, we set tent stakes "deadman" style. To do this, attach the guyline into the center of the stake, then bury it horizontally in the snow or sand. The line and stake together should make a T, with the stake being the top of the T. Be sure to bury the stake at least a foot down; otherwise, it will melt out or pull out. If using rocks, uses big ones! (You can't possibly find one that's too big.) Several companies make high-quality snow and sand stakes. If you know you are going to be camped on snow for extended periods, these are 100% worth it.
If your tent doesn't come with camming adjusters (most don't) and you don't want to buy some, the Trucker's Hitch is the second easiest method to tension guylines. Set up as illustrated below. Create the upper loop by using an overhand on a bight or a slipknot, and then tie off with a looped half hitch, which is easy to untie and adjust.