From backcountry ski tours to mountaineering in some of the most brutal weather on Earth, a 4-season tent is the last line of defense between you and the elements. Accordingly, these tents are much stronger than their 3-season counterparts with less mesh, more substantial canopies and rainflies, tougher pole structures, and a whole host of features designed for winter use. Below are our picks for the best 4-season tents of 2020. Given the range of possible uses, we’ve categorized the different models under mountaineering, basecamp, and treeline. For more background, see our 4-season tent comparison table and buying advice below the picks.
Packaged weight: 9 lbs. 10 oz.
Floor area: 40 sq. ft.
What we like: Tough build and great livability.
What we don’t: Heavy.
Choosing our favorite 4-season tent was no easy task, but Mountain Hardwear deftly balances it all with their time-tested Trango 2. This tent knows bad weather as well as any other, with a burly, double-wall design and fly that connects not only to the poles but also to the body of the tent for added security in high winds. With two doors and two vestibules you get great livability, and the generous 40 square foot footprint is significantly roomier than any other 2-person model here. In their most recent update, Mountain Hardwear shifted the vestibule pole location to under the fly and incorporated non-fire-retardant (read: non-toxic) materials.
Ultimately, the decision between the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 and a single-wall tent like the Black Diamond Eldorado below comes down to your winter camping style. Some feel that the extra pounds are worth the added features and space, while others want to get up and down the mountain with as little weight as possible in their pack. One upside of the Trango 2 is that it’s easy to divvy up with your climbing partner to split the weight (single-wall tents often are not). And if weight isn’t an issue—which might be the case if you have porters or are flying into an area—the Trango comes in 3- and 4-person models for even more basecamp luxury.
See the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2
Best Single-Wall Mountaineering Tent
Packaged weight: 5 lbs. 1 oz.
Floor area: 30.8 sq. ft.
What we like: Lightweight and compact.
What we don’t: Mediocre ventilation and internal pole structure.
The Black Diamond Eldorado is a classic. Despite numerous updates over the years, this single-wall, two-pole tent has withstood a whole lot of blustery winter nights and summit pushes. Most importantly, durability and build quality are superb—it has been used on Everest expeditions and been proven over decades of alpine use. Despite the toughness, the tent weighs just 5 pounds 1 ounce, which is just about as low as you’ll get for a serious mountaineering tent.
Keep in mind that the Black Diamond Eldorado is comfy for one person and gear, but not roomy for two. If you want extra space, a vestibule is available as an add-on for $170 (we’ve always been fans of a small vestibule built into the tent and don’t like the extra cost). Moreover, internal tent poles are considered by many to be a hassle—they can be difficult to set up and can poke holes through the corners of the tent if you aren't careful. Finally, single-wall tents don’t breathe nearly as well as double-wall models. But the weight savings is worth the sacrifices for many alpinists, making the Eldorado the top minimalist 4-season tent on the market.
See the Black Diamond Eldorado
Best All-Season Tent for Treeline Adventures
Packaged weight: 4 lbs. 1 oz.
Floor area: 29 sq. ft.
What we like: Ultralight for a double-wall tent yet decently strong.
What we don’t: Not prepared for full-on winter weather.
Many 4-season tents are overkill for mild winter conditions, and in those cases a decently strong (but slightly less bombproof) tent will do. Enter the “treeline” category, and our top pick MSR Access 2. The double-wall Access provides more protection than a 3-season model (with less mesh and a sturdier pole structure), but its 4-pound 1-ounce build is significantly lighter than most comparable options here. And unlike tents in our mountaineering category, the Access still has the convenience of two doors and two vestibules and 29 square feet of floor area (our testers jumped up to the three-person version for extra space plus a canine). All told, it’s a great middle-ground tent for winter and shoulder season trips with mild conditions or when you won’t be fully exposed.
The MSR Access’s “treeline” designation is a bit tricky. The last thing you want is to be in over your head in a winter storm, and the 4-pound weight is awfully light (meaning less wind and rain/snow protection overall). But we took the Access out in the snowy B.C. backcountry and even the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru with no issues. It’s worth noting that in blustery conditions, the fly doesn’t fully extend to the ground and therefore you must create a snow wall for protection from drafts and drifts. And the tent doesn’t include MSR Blizzard stakes (just regular pegs), so we recommend bringing those along... Read in-depth review
See the MSR Access 2
Best Ultralight Winter Shelter
Packaged weight: 2 lbs. 13 oz.
Floor area: 50.7 sq. ft.
What we like: Incredible versatility for snow camping; lightweight and inexpensive.
What we don’t: Unstable in heavy winds, allows drafts in.
You’ll likely want a fully featured tent for sleeping in the snow, but as a dining shelter, gear storage, or simply a change of scenery when cabin fever sets in, the Black Diamond Mega Light is a total basecamp luxury. And we use the word “luxury” lightly—at 2 pounds 13 ounces all-in, it’s by far the lightest tent on our list. The most significant feature of the Mega Light is the floorless design, which allows you to dig out the snow underneath and create a seating or standing area for four. And in a pinch, the Mega Light can double as a lightweight sleeping shelter—at 50.7 square feet, you get about 20 more square feet of floor space than most options on this list.
But calling the Mega Light a 4-season tent is a bit of a stretch. Although it’s withstood winds up to 50 miles per hour throughout our testing, it just doesn’t compare to burlier tents like the Hilleberg Nammatj 2 GT below or even the single-walled Black Diamond Eldorado. In essence, it is a glorified tarp with no floor: in truly cold or windy conditions, it’s prone to flapping around and will feel quite drafty. It’s true that Black Diamond does make a bug net with a bathtub floor that can be paired with the Mega Light, but this will add an extra 3 pounds 11 ounces to your pack. But used correctly, the Mega Light is an impressively versatile design that is equally useful for winter-time camping as it is on a summer backpacking adventure... Read in-depth review
See the Black Diamond Mega Light
Best of the Rest
Packaged weight: 9 lbs. 15 oz.
Floor area: 32.3 sq. ft.
What we like: Good value for a burly basecamp-style design.
What we don’t: Heavier and less spacious than the Trango 2 above.
The North Face’s Mountain 25 has been trusted for years in the most inhospitable regions of the planet. And although it’s the heaviest tent on our list, you’ll be thankful for all 9 pounds 15 ounces when you’re weathering out tough conditions in basecamp. Similar to the Trango 2 above, the Mountain 25 features a burly double-wall build, stout poles, and time-tested fabrics that thrive in tough conditions. Two doors and vestibules provide multiple entry points and ample storage space. And the tent ventilates well, feels roomy with a peak height of 41 inches (3 inches taller than the Trango 2), is loaded with internal pockets, and is easy to set up and take down.
It was a tough call between the Trango 2 and the Mountain 25 for our top pick, but in the end the Mountain Hardwear won out for its roomier floorplan in a slightly lighter build. But the two tents go head to head in practically all other categories, including weather protection, durability (although the TNF’s fly is less robust at 40D vs 70D), and price. And a footprint is now included with the Mountain 25 (the Trango’s is purchased separately for $80), but it’s unlikely you’ll need the extra durability for camping on snow. For a larger three-person version of this tent with more interior space, try The North Face VE 25... Read in-depth review
See the North Face Mountain 25
Packaged weight: 7 lbs. 4 oz.
Floor area: 31.2 sq. ft.
What we like: Premium build quality at a reasonable weight.
What we don’t: Extremely expensive and not a true mountaineering tent.
We’ll get the elephant out of the room first: Hilleberg tents are expensive. The Swedish company uses ultra-premium materials and focuses on small details like no other brand, and unfortunately you won’t find many bargains. But that doesn’t mean a Hilleberg isn’t worth it—at 7 pounds 4 ounces and with two doors and vestibules, the Allak is a full-service all-season tent that is considerably lighter than competing models like the Trango 2 above. The traditional dome shape isn’t built to stand up to the fiercest winds or heaviest snow loads, but it sure does a good job at trying.
The Allak walks the line between our “treeline” and “basecamp” categories, and Hilleberg’s Red Label (one step below the legendary Black Label) alludes to a similar classification. In other words, it’s a step up from the Access, but not quite on par with the Trango or Mountain 25 above. That said, in our experience, the Allak is strong enough to handle the gusty winds and heavy precipitation of true winter weather. For the ultimate in protection from Hilleberg, try the Staika, an even more buttoned-down 4-season tent with a similar dome design. The biggest compromise is weight as the Staika comes in at 8 pounds 13 ounces, and it costs $55 more as well... Read in-depth review
See the Hilleberg Allak 2
Packaged weight: 7 lbs. 8 oz.
Floor area: 36.3 sq. ft.
What we like: External pole structure sets up fast and reduces weight.
What we don’t: Unproven long-term performance.
Taking direct aim at the popular Trango 2 and Mountain 25 tents above is the Nemo Chogori 2. The big news with this tent is its double-wall construction and external pole structure, which makes it faster and easier to pitch in inclement weather than its main competition (the Trango and Mountain require you to set up the tent body and rainfly separately). Nemo doesn’t skimp on quality either with strong DAC poles and silicone-treated nylon on the fly for added durability and weatherproofing. And at 7 pounds 8 ounces, the Chogori is among the lighter basecamp-ready tents on this list.
What are the downsides of the Nemo Chogori? With 36.3 square feet of interior space, it’s roomy but its 39-inch peak height means less head room than most tents here. Further, at $700, it’s more expensive than the Mountain 25 ($689) and doesn’t come with the Trango’s long track record in extreme conditions. But we think the Chogori’s simple and quick set-up process, strong pole structure, and reasonable weight makes it a versatile option for mountaineering and other winter backcountry adventures.
See the Nemo Chogori 2
Packaged weight: 7 lbs. 1 oz.
Floor area: 34.4 sq. ft.
What we like: Double-wall design yet still reasonably light.
What we don’t: Not as roomy as the heavier options above.
The Hilleberg Allak above is more of a dome-style tent, but the sleek Jannu is all about pushing the limits in the alpine. This mountaineering tent is competitive with top models like the Black Diamond Eldorado above: it’s compact, super strong, has one door and one vestibule, and good livability at over 34 square feet of interior space. The Jannu is perfect for a single climber to spread out with a lot of gear, or does just fine as a double for a summit push.
How does the Jannu differ from a tent like the Black Diamond Eldorado? To start, it features a double-wall design that helps tremendously with airflow and ventilation (keep in mind that this makes the Jannu more versatile than the Eldorado for use outside of hardcore mountaineering). In terms of weight, the Jannu is heavier at over 7 pounds, but still very respectable for a double-wall design. And as you might expect from a Hilleberg, it costs a pretty penny at a whopping $1040. Both tents are freestanding (only the vestibule on the Jannu requires staking out) and you really can’t go wrong with either.
See the Hilleberg Jannu 2
Packaged weight: 4 lbs. 5 oz.
Floor area: 26 sq. ft.
What we like: Light for a double-wall tent and a good value.
What we don’t: Thin fabrics, small vestibule, and limited pockets.
The Nemo Kunai is an interesting and rather underappreciated 4-season tent. Most importantly, it’s one of lightest double-wall tents on this list at just 4 pounds 5 ounces—only the MSR Access is less, and that’s categorized as a treeline tent. But the Kunai is tough from head to toe, including a third pole over the front doorway to increase stability and four tie-downs threaded through the rainfly. In high winds, this secures the entire structure of the tent rather than just the fly (we’re looking at you, MSR Access).
Held up against other tents in our mountaineering category, the Kunai is competitive both in weight and protection. However, it stands out in its double-wall design, which offers greater breathability and comfort but has its downsides for an assault-style tent. For one, the Kunai’s 15-denier fly fabric is significantly thinner than that of single-wall tents (the Eldorado is made with 30D fabric), and we wouldn’t want to use it around abrasive rock. Second, a double-wall tent (especially with a vestibule) takes more time and space to set up—the Kunai wouldn’t be our first choice for bivying on a small ledge halfway up Fitz Roy, for example. But for light-and-fast winter camping and ski mountaineering, the Kunai offers an impressive combination of weather protection in a lightweight build.
See the Nemo Kunai 2P
Packaged weight: 8 lbs. 3 oz.
Floor area: 30.1 sq. ft.
What we like: Super roomy vestibule and superb in high winds.
What we don’t: Tunnel design isn’t as adept at handling heavy snow loads as a dome tent.
The Allak is our favorite crossover treeline/basecamp tent from Hilleberg, and the Jannu is a premier lightweight option for mountaineering. But don’t overlook the Nammatj GT, which has a tunnel-shaped design that is built to withstand the toughest of conditions. This is one of Hilleberg’s legendary Black Label tents, which means that it’s among the strongest the company makes. With an all-in weight of 8 pounds 3 ounces, you will be hard-pressed to find a 4-season tent that does more while weighing less. The GT version of the Nammatj gets you an extended vestibule (a whopping 25.8 square feet of storage), which is extremely roomy and great for basecamping in particularly inclement conditions.
In terms of design, the tunnel shape of the Nammatj excels in high winds but isn’t quite as good at handling heavy snow loads as a dome-style tent. You’ll see a lot of photos of the Nammatj in pretty serious snow, but it is worth taking the time to dig yourself in and create a perimeter. And realistically, the toughness of the Nammatj GT is perfect for the high mountains and polar regions, but the tent can be overkill for mild-weather trips. For a similar tunnel design from Hilleberg for less extreme conditions at a lower weight, we love the Nallo, a Red Label tent that also comes in a GT version.
See the Hilleberg Nammatj 2 GT
Packaged weight: 3 lbs. 6 oz.
Floor area: 27.3 sq. ft.
What we like: Lightweight and super easy to pack.
What we don’t: Not waterproof.
The Black Diamond Firstlight is a polarizing 4-season tent. Some people rave about just how light and packable it is, and the packaged weight of 3 pounds 6 ounces is second-lightest on this list (next to the BD Mega Light). You also get a freestanding single-wall design with a very small footprint, meaning the Firstlight can fit onto tiny ledges that other tents on the list simply cannot. For fast and light minimalist ascents, it undercuts the BD Eldorado above by a significant 1 pound 11 ounces.
Many of the complaints about the Firstlight relate to waterproofing. Like some ultralight, single-wall designs, the Firstlight is not waterproof. The NanoShield canopy fabric has a silicone coating that is water-resistant, but persistent rain will soak through rather quickly. It’s true that the tent was designed to be a barrier against wind and snow found in high-alpine environments. The question then becomes whether you want to limit yourself to those uses, and if so, whether you feel comfortable in a 3-pound 6-ounce structure. We prefer the waterproofing and added protection of tents like the Eldorado above, but the Firstlight is a very affordable option with a loyal following.
See the Black Diamond Firstlight
Packaged weight: 6 lbs. 3 oz.
Floor area: 41 sq. ft.
What we like: Very spacious but still lightweight.
What we don’t: Not as bombproof as heavier options.
With the Copper Spur HV3 Expedition, Big Agnes took their wildly popular backpacking tent and added a host of 4-season features to make an intriguing winter camping and mountaineering design. We’ve include the three-person model here, which is far roomier than any of the two-person options on our list, yet has a packaged weight of just over 6 pounds. Compared to the MSR Access 3 above, the Copper Spur weighs a little over a pound more but easily surpasses it in livability with more open, near-vertical walls. Further, the Big Agnes’s beefy, large-diameter poles, glove-compatible zipper pulls, and multiple tie-down options that are large enough to be staked out with skis make the Copper Spur Expedition a proper, winter-ready structure.
Despite its great space-to-weight ratio, the Copper Spur Expedition strikes us as an in-between design that doesn’t excel at anything. With thin fabrics and a hubbed, three-pole structure, it just can’t match the protection provided by the Trango 2 above, which boasts a four-pole build and burly (albeit heavy) 40D nylon walls. And true ounce counters will probably sacrifice a bit of comfort for the weight savings of a single-walled tent. But if you’re looking for a middle ground that prioritizes both space and weight, the Big Agnes is an intriguing alternative. For a more traditional basecamp-style design from Big Agnes for mountaineering or serious winter objectives, check out their Battle Mountain line.
See the Big Agnes Copper Spur HV3 Expedition
Packaged weight: 6 lbs. 5 oz.
Floor area: 32.9 sq. ft.
What we like: A great value for a 4-season tent.
What we don’t: Not built for the toughest of conditions.
Similar to the MSR Access above, there’s a time and place for the Arete. REI calls it “all season light,” which translates to a tent that offers better weather protection than a traditional 3-season model but isn’t built for super-strong winds or heavy snow loads. But with an updated four-pole design, the Arete is now more stable, and with additional head room too. At 6 pounds 5 ounces and only $399, it’s an economical way to hit the backcountry on a ski or snowshoe trip in mild to moderate conditions. Put simply, you won’t find a better deal anywhere on this list.
One thing in particular that we like about the REI Co-op Arete is that it’s a true year-round option. The double-wall design and substantial mesh door and vents means that it can be used for normal backpacking trips not involving the cold, but the Arete can hold its own on snow as well. As long as you don’t depend on the Arete to be your companion on high-altitude or particularly stormy missions, it’s great for the shoulder seasons and a healthy range of mild winter trips.
See the REI Co-op Arete ASL 2
Packaged weight: 5 lbs. 14 oz.
Floor area: 26.3 sq. ft.
What we like: Strong and great ventilation for a single-wall tent.
What we don’t: Can feel a bit cramped and drafty.
For a tougher 4-season option from popular tentmaker Nemo, try the Tenshi. This single-wall tent is reminiscent of the Black Diamond Eldorado above, with a streamlined design for the high mountains. More so than the Eldorado, the Tenshi has mid-wall tie downs on each side that help prevent the tent from caving during strong winds. We also like the unique Condensation Curtain, a flap that comes down over the chest area and essentially quarantines moisture from breathing to one area of the tent. And unlike some single-wall tents, the vestibule and everything else you need with the Tenshi is included.
As with all lightweight mountaineering models, the Tenshi has some shortcomings. It’s relatively small with only 26.3 square feet of floor space, and we’ve found that the door can feel somewhat constricting. Further, it can be bulky to carry and takes up a healthy amount of room in your pack. Finally, ventilation is a strongpoint of this tent with multiple venting options, but it actually can become a bit drafty and cold if you’re sleeping solo.
See the Nemo Tenshi 2P
Packaged weight: 4 lbs. 15 oz.
Floor area: 27.3 sq. ft.
What we like: Included vestibule makes it a good value.
What we don’t: Not a top choice for waiting out a rainstorm.
If you haven’t heard of The North Face’s new Futurelight fabric, you’re probably living in cave. TNF touts it as their most advanced waterproof-breathable technology yet, which is great news for a single-wall tent like the popular Assault (one of the biggest downsides of single-wall tents is condensation build-up). Aside from the boost in breathability, TNF’s mountaineering go-to retains its same beloved design, with a strong structure built to withstand serious winter conditions and multiple vents along the top to promote airflow. Notably, it manages to do all this at a competitively low weight of 4 pounds 15 ounces, making the Assault 2 Futurelight one of the most capable 4-season options for summit pushes.
Compared to the Black Diamond Eldorado above, the Assault is a couple ounces lighter, but this does come at the cost of about 3.5 square feet of floor area. You do get the added versatility of a zip-off vestibule (the Eldorado’s tacks on another $170 and 1 lb. 6 oz.), and we find that the ability to store our gear outside more than makes up for the limited interior space. One concern we have with the updated model is that its thin fabric means less protection from the elements. Plus, we haven’t been overly impressed with the waterproof performance of the Futurelight laminate in our initial impressions of The North Face’s Futurelight L5 LT Jacket (the soft material and air-permeable design soaked up moisture quickly). But with improved breathability in a time-tested build, the Assault 2 is well deserving of a closer look, and at $659 is a great value.
See the North Face Assault 2 Futurelight
Trail weight: 4 lbs. 1 oz.
Floor area: 31.5 sq. ft.
What we like: eVent canopy is breathable yet waterproof.
What we don’t: Pricey and not time-tested like other tents on this list.
Kudos to Rab for the creativity with the Latok line of 4-season tents. This unique single-wall design is made with three-layer eVent (if that doesn’t ring a bell, it’s used in a number of hardshell jackets). The fabric is known for its breathability and toughness, and therefore the Latok Mountain is an excellent ventilator that happens to be waterproof. At just 4 pounds 1 ounce and with 31 square feet of floor area, it’s an intriguing option for mountaineers.
A breathable, waterproof, single-wall tent at a hair over 4 pounds with a solid amount of interior space sounds like a perfect option for high-alpine adventures. One major complaint is the thin and breathable walls don’t seem to insulate as well as other single-wall tents, which can be an issue when camping in frigid temperatures. In addition, the outer tent walls have a tendency flap in high winds, while those on the Black Diamond Eldorado are super tight with barely a lick of movement. All that said, this is a quality tent that get high marks from die-hard mountaineers.
See the Rab Latok Mountain 2
Packaged weight: 7 lbs. 15 oz.
Floor area: 34.5 sq. ft.
What we like: A great value and roomy.
What we don’t: Heavy, bulky, and limited performance capabilities.
We’ll start by saying that we’ve had positive experiences overall with Alps products, although they are budget in nature and definitely not among our top performers. But you can’t argue with the value, which is why the Alps Tasmanian made this list. At only $300 (and $221 on Amazon at the time of publishing), you get a fairly protective tent that will do the trick for most casual winter campers. We particularly like the roominess of this tent, which at 34.5 square feet is one of the biggest two-person models. Plus, the large mesh vent at the top does a fairly good job at promoting airflow and preventing condensation from building up.
It’s important to have reasonable expectations for a 4-season tent in this price range. First, the Alps Tasmanian is heavy at 7 pounds 15 ounces, not to mention it’s bulky and somewhat difficult to stuff into the included sack (although you’ll likely end up separating the tent body and poles to make it easier to fit in a pack). Second, we don’t recommend putting this tent to the limit in terms of tough winter weather. It should perform fine in the cold and light to moderate wind, but the tents above use higher-quality materials and much more complex designs. Finally, durability always is a concern with products that undercut the rest of the market in price. Alps does cover manufacturing defects under their warranty but not anything related to normal wear and tear.
See the Alps Mountaineering Tasmanian 2
|Mountain Hardwear Trango 2||$700||Basecamp||9 lb. 10 oz.||40 sq. ft.||38 in.||Double|
|Black Diamond Eldorado||$730||Mountaineering||5 lb. 1 oz.||30.8 sq. ft.||43 in.||Single|
|MSR Access 2||$600||Treeline||4 lbs. 1 oz.||29 sq. ft.||42 in.||Double|
|Black Diamond Mega Light||$320||Basecamp/treeline||2 lb. 13 oz.||50.7 sq. ft.||57 in.||Single|
|The North Face Mountain 25||$689||Basecamp||9 lb. 15 oz.||32.3 sq. ft.||41 in.||Double|
|Hilleberg Allak||$1070||Treeline/basecamp||7 lb. 4 oz.||31.2 sq. ft.||41 in.||Double|
|Nemo Chogori 2||$700||Basecamp||7 lb. 8 oz.||36.3 sq. ft.||39 in.||Double|
|Hilleberg Jannu||$1040||Mountaineering||7 lb. 1 oz.||34.4 sq. ft.||39 in.||Double|
|Nemo Kunai 2P||$500||Treeline/mountaineering||4 lb. 5 oz.||27.6 sq. ft.||42 in.||Double|
|Hilleberg Nammatj 2 GT||$1050||Basecamp||8 lb. 3 oz.||30.1 sq. ft.||37 in.||Double|
|Black Diamond Firstlight||$370||Mountaineering||3 lb. 6 oz.||27.3 sq. ft.||42 in.||Single|
|Big Agnes Copper Spur HV3||$550||Treeline/basecamp||6 lb. 3 oz.||41 sq. ft.||41 in.||Double|
|REI Co-op Arete ASL 2||$399||Treeline||6 lb. 5 oz.||32.9 sq. ft.||43 in.||Double|
|Nemo Tenshi||$700||Mountaineering||5 lb. 14 oz.||26.3 sq. ft.||43 in.||Single|
|TNF Assault 2 Futurelight||$659||Mountaineering||4 lb. 15 oz.||27.3 sq. ft.||42 in.||Single|
|Rab Latok Mountain 2||$675||Mountaineering||4 lb. 1 oz.||31.5 sq. ft.||43 in.||Single|
|Alps Tasmanian 2||$350||Treeline||7 lb. 15 oz.||34.5 sq. ft.||46 in.||Double|
- 4-Season Tent Types
- Weight and Packed Size
- Double-Wall vs. Single-Wall Tents
- Size: Floor Area and Peak Height
- Ventilation and Condensation
- Silnylon vs. Polyurethane
- Storage: Vestibules and Interior Pockets
- Tent Pole Design: Freestanding vs. Non-freestanding
- Stakes and Snow Anchors
- When Waterproofing Matters
- 4-Season Tents vs. 3-Season Tents
- A Note on 4-Season Shelters
The term 4-season tent is a catch-all for any shelter that is made to withstand inclement, winter weather. However, there’s still a fair amount of variation within the category, which includes bulletproof, spacious, and heavy tents (great for basecamping), lightweight single-wall builds (great for alpine pushes), and everything in between. Below, we break down our three main categories of 4-season tents: mountaineering, basecamp, and treeline.
Mountaineering tents are built for high-alpine environments with weight as a primary consideration. Many of these tents are of the single-wall variety (more on that below) and make few compromises in terms of wind and weather protection. Square footage tends to be lower than basecamping and treeline tents, and the same goes for peak height. Almost all mountaineering tents are waterproof (or easily seam-sealed), with one exception being the lightweight Black Diamond Firstlight.
4-season tents of the basecamping variety generally are more comfortable and heavier than their mountaineering siblings above. To start, you may not have to carry your tent as far or as high, and therefore it’s easier to pack more weight and get more tent in return. In addition, you may end up spending more time in a basecamp-style tent. Mountaineering tents are designed for fast and light adventures and summit pushes, but basecamping can be done in a variety of circumstances and conditions. Many of these tents have a double-wall design, which helps with ventilation, condensation prevention, and space, all at the expense of weight.
Treeline tents are the most trimmed-down 4-season models on the market. As the name implies, tents like the MSR Access 2 are designed for winter camping but not necessarily for heavy exposure in the high mountains. Compared to a 3-season version, a treeline tent will have a more substantial bathtub floor, less mesh, and heavier canopy and rainfly fabrics. But these tents fall short of basecamp and mountaineering models in terms of their toughness and durability, and it’s best not to put them to the test. They are, however, a nice option for light winter adventuring and serious 3-season backpacking in unpredictable weather.
4-season tents weigh more than their 3-season counterparts due to heavier and more durable fabrics, stronger poles, and beefier zippers. On the light end of the spectrum, the minimalist Black Diamond Firstlight has a feathery packaged weight of just 3 pounds 6 ounces, while a heavy-duty model like the Mountain 25 is nearly 10 pounds. Even if you look at the trail weight instead of the packaged weight (which doesn’t factor in stuff sacks, stakes, and guylines), you’ll still be close to 9 pounds for a number of tents on this list for the two-person version (the three- and four-person models weigh even more).
As with almost all types of outdoor gear, going up in weight has its advantages. Heavier 4-season tents generally are tougher and more weather resistant, ventilate better, and have more features. You’re getting a whole lot more tent, which may end up being worthwhile. We’ve been tent-bound in a Firstlight for three days on end, and even in with the rose-colored tint of nostalgia, the experience still remains a dismal one. We surely would have traded a few pounds of peanut M&Ms for the comfort and weather protection of a heavier tent like the TNF Mountain 25.
Weight and packed size generally go hand in hand and there is a strong correlation between the two variables. In many cases, two or more climbing partners can split up the components on the tent to less the burden for each. It’s worth noting that this process can be more difficult for single-wall tents than the double-wall variety—with no rainfly, the tent body is the vast majority of the weight and bulk. But with most double-wall tents, the canopy and rainfly often can be split up fairly evenly.
A critical distinction among 4-season tents is between double and single-wall designs. Simply put, a double-wall tent is composed of two separate layers: the inner tent canopy and an outer rainfly. Single-wall tents, on the other hand, have one layer of fabric to protect you from the outside elements. But don’t fret: single-wall tents can be tough as nails and fully waterproof depending on the materials and finish. They’re also considerably lighter than double-wall models with much less fabric and complexity.
Which type of 4-season tent design should you choose? If weight is your top priority, a single-wall wins out with models like the The North Face Assault and Black Diamond Eldorado leading the charge. But these tents are minimalist in nature and have their limitations. They don’t transport moisture from breathing and normal condensation on the inner walls nearly as well as double-wall tents. And by in large, you get less interior space, smaller vestibules, and fewer doors. Single-wall tents are meant for weekend summit assaults on Mount Rainer or the final push to the top of a Himalayan giant, while double-wall tents are more comfortable at a 17,000-foot camp on Denali in heavy wind and snow. If your trip or expedition is longer than a couple of days, a double-walled tent may be your best bet.
Winter camping typically means bigger sleeping bags, bigger sleeping pads, and more personal gear. That’s why most 4-season tents have more square footage than a normal backpacking tent. Also, keep in mind that you may be spending more time in your tent if you are mountaineering or waiting for that sucker hole of good weather to move up.
The interior space of a tent is most commonly measured by the floor area, which we’ve provided in square feet in our product specs and comparison table. At the small end of the spectrum, a minimalist mountaineering tent like the Nemo Tenshi is just 26.3 square feet, while the roomy three-person Big Agnes Copper Spur Expedition is 41 square feet. However, many climbers use the Tenshi, BD Eldorado, and other compact models for just themselves and their gear, or you can add a vestibule for extra space and storage. If you’re looking for space, the basecamp and treeline variety win out. Many tents now feature a cross-bracing pole on the ceiling, which provides lateral stability against wind and snow loads while also offering more headroom (think of a cube as opposed to a pyramid). More headroom makes those tent-bound days a little bit more bearable.
Square footage doesn’t tell the entire story as it only represents the floor: you also have the peak height and slope of the walls. A high peak height makes it easy to sit up and move around the tent, while heavily sloped walls have a tendency to make everything feel much smaller. We’ve provided the peak heights in our comparison table above, and the slope of the wall is best gauged by carefully studying the shape of the tent (or better yet, getting inside at a local gear shop and seeing for yourself).
Last but not least: make sure to find a tent that is a few inches longer than you are. Otherwise, you will have to sleep at an angle or in the fetal position, neither of which is optimal. Most 4-season tents can accommodate people over 6-feet tall, but Hilleberg seems to be the favorite brand for those who tower over the rest.
By nature, 4-season tents are warmer than 3-season tents—they have less mesh, are designed to protect you from the elements, and therefore hold in more heat. Yet it’s important to keep fresh air flowing both to stay dry and to save you from the funk of your climbing partner’s socks. Over time, your breath will condense on the inner walls of the tent. In warmer weather, it will turn into beads of water on the ceiling and walls. In colder weather, it will turn to frost feathers. Both can fall on your face while you sleep and get your sleeping bag and other gear wet. And sleeping in a fully enclosed tent can make you feel groggy as you continually breathe stale air.
Proper ventilation will help to alleviate many of these issues. It’s important to remember that even the best 4-season tents are prone to some type of condensation, but some fare better than others. Double-wall designs tend to breathe better than single-wall tents, and the more vents the better. If drafts don’t make you uncomfortable, leaving doors and any available vents open can help mitigate condensation. In the product descriptions above we’ve tried to describe which tents in particular are strong or poor in terms of breathability, which certainly can be an important factor to your comfort.
When heavy winds and six feet of snow bury your tent at 14,000-foot camp on Denali, you want to know that it will be able to stand up to the load. Moreover, at higher altitudes and on glaciers, tents will be subjected to intense ultra-violet rays from the sun. This will wear your tent out faster than it would at lower altitudes or in more hospitable climates. For these reasons, many 4-season tents are made with heavy fabric (70D Nylon Taffeta with a quality coating) to stand up to the rigors of sunlight (which is stronger at higher altitudes due to the fact that there is less atmosphere to filter its rays), high winds, and driving snow and rain.
Time-tested tents such as the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2, The North Face’s Mountain 25, and numerous Hilleberg models are known for being able to stand up to years of abuse in the toughest climates known to man. They remain relatively light without skimping on durable materials. In general, as the cost of a tent goes down so does the build quality and durability. This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule by any means, but cheaper tents tend to be less durable and trustworthy than their more expensive counterparts.
Taking a quick dive into the nitty-gritty of fabric strength and waterproofing, there are two basic types of coatings used on 4-season tents: silicone (also referred to as silnylon) and polyurethane (commonly written as PU). Silicone coated nylons are very expensive, typically weigh less, pack down smaller, and in the case of Hilleberg’s siliconized Kerlon fabrics, have incredible tear strength and longevity. But even Hilleberg uses polyurethane for the floor of their tents. Polyurethane can be laid on thicker than silicone for excellent puncture and abrasion resistance, is much easier to seam tape, and far less slippery than silicone, which is helpful on a tent floor to keep you from sliding around. The main downside is a shorter lifespan, particularly with low quality polyurethane that is prone to delaminating. But the benefits often don’t outweigh the added cost of silicone, so most non-Hilleberg tents have polyurethane coated rainflies and floors.
On an extended trip where inclement weather is likely, having ample space to store and dry your gear is an absolute necessity. Tents like the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 and the Big Agnes Copper Spur Expedition are lined with pockets upon pockets. It never ceases to amaze me how easily I fill those pockets with food, gear, and electronics once my pack is emptied. And keeping your gear organized and separate from your partner’s is essential on any long trip (you wouldn’t want him or her to start eating your snacks!). Most tents also feature small loops meant to string guy line across the ceiling, which is useful to dry wet gear after a long day in bad weather.
Perhaps nothing on a 4-season tent is more important to comfort than the vestibule. A tent’s vestibule acts as a separate room that separates the dry, snow and rain-free interior of the tent from the harsh outside elements. Nothing will aggravate your partner more than soaking their dry down sleeping bag with your wet Gore-Tex and snow-ridden boots. The vestibule is where you seal yourself off from the majority of the outside weather and prepare to enter the tent dry, just like you would take your muddy shoes off outside before walking on someone’s carpet. Many tents have a smaller rear vestibule that can hold a few backpacks, but isn’t optimal for cooking or using as the main door.
There are two types of tent pole designs: freestanding and non-freestanding. Freestanding means that once all of the poles are installed, the tent will stand on its own. Non-freestanding tents need to be properly staked and guyed out to achieve their rigidity.
There are benefits and drawbacks to both tent types and it really comes down to personal preference. Freestanding tents like our top-rated Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 are easier and faster to set up. Once all of the poles are in place, you simply guy it out and start getting comfortable. These tents feature cross-bracing poles that give the tent its strength and stability. Even in bad weather, an experienced outdoorsperson usually can set up a freestanding tent by themselves.
Non-freestanding tents typically are lighter but more difficult to set up—they rely on anchors in the ground or snow to stand upright. Once the tent poles are installed, the front and back of the tent is staked and tensioned, then the sides are guyed out to give the tent its rigidity. Non-freestanding tents usually have more of a tube profile as opposed to a broad pyramid. This gives them an aerodynamic shape, which will stand up to high winds when placed correctly. Both types of tents are constantly being used in places like the Polar Regions, the high Himalaya, and Alaska.
Tent Pole Quality
In terms of tent pole quality, 4-season tents will have stronger (and heavier) poles that can withstand big gusts of wind. In cold weather, tent fabric shrinks and plastics and metals get brittle. Snapping a tent pole in a storm easily could result in a shredded tent, but stout metal poles (Easton, DAC, etc.) with long connector joints will provide torsional strength. And beware of any tent pole with a plastic tip (the end part of the pole that connects into the grommet of the tent). One year on Denali, I saw over a dozen of the same poles shear off at the tip when a company switched from metal to plastic.
Everyone who has backpacked knows that the number of doors a tent has matters a lot. Nothing is more frustrating than having to crawl blindly over your partner at 2 a.m. to answer nature’s call, and they would probably say the same. 4-season tents either have one or two doors, and we’ve provided this information in our comparison table above. In general, lightweight mountaineering tents are most likely to have one door—it’s an easy way to cut weight and keep the footprint of the tent small (and it’s not a downside if you’re camping solo). Basecamping and treeline tents are likely to have two doors, which allows each person to enter and exit as they please. And one final consideration in relation to doors: a second door often means a second vestibule, which greatly enhances the storage opportunities and comfort.
In environments with unpredictable weather, it’s imperative to make your tent bombproof against wind and storms. Once while returning to Camp Muir after summiting Mount Rainier, we watched a tent roll down the Cowlitz Glacier and fall into a crevasse (true story). I later found out that the team had “anchored” their tent down with basic 6-inch stakes meant to hold a standard tent backpacking in the dirt. A few years later on Denali, a team’s tent was picked up by a gust and flew off the ridge with all of their sleeping bags inside. Luckily, they got it back, but not without tremendous effort. They also had neglected to dig proper snow anchors.
When using a 4-season tent in an alpine environment, it is not uncommon to use backcountry skis, ice axes, pickets, ski poles, bamboo wands, or anything else that can be securely buried and not bend or break under high loads. On big mountains like Denali, it’s advisable to dig down 2 feet or more and fill around your “stake” with very compact snow. If you don’t have long skis or poles at your disposal, you can make a “deadman” anchor with any spare pieces of gear lying around. Simply wrap a stick, rock, tent stake—even a stuff sack filled with snow—with a guyline and bury it deep into the snow. What’s most important here is that you cover the deadman with heavy, compact snow so it does not become unanchored.
A lighter and more bombproof option is to use snow parachutes. These are made from durable nylon and use their surface area and the surrounding snow to anchor them in. They must be dug deep and, once the snow is compacted and firms up after a few minutes, they are as strong as anything. Another benefit of snow parachutes is that they can remain attached to the tent. This eases the set-up process and means you do not have to root around in your backpack to find stakes or random tools to use as anchors.
You might be wondering why on earth we would recommend a non-waterproof tent like the Black Diamond Firstlight as a winter option. Isn’t the whole purpose of a tent—especially a 4-season tent—to keep you dry? Yes, and here is our reasoning: In truly wintery conditions when temperatures stay well below freezing, the chance of snow melting and seeping through the walls is slim to none. Additionally, snow crystals falling from the sky are most likely to slide off (more on this below). If there ever was a time to skimp on waterproofing, deep winter is it. Of course—and this is important—this is assuming you’re confident heading into the mountains that you’re not going to have an unseasonably warm, rainy night.
There are a couple clear benefits to forgoing waterproof material in a tent. First, waterproof fabrics and seam taping does increase weight and price—and at a feathery 3 pounds 6 ounces and reasonable $370, the Black Diamond Firstlight is an ultralight, affordable option. Also, waterproofing generally detracts from breathability (especially in a single-walled tent), which means that the other single-walled, waterproof options trap noticeably more condensation than the Firstlight. But these benefits come with some responsibility. Make sure you seal your tent’s seams as a first line of defense against wet precipitation (Gear Aid’s Grip Seam Sealer is a proven choice). Second, routinely give your tent a shake when it’s snowing, so there is no opportunity for the snow to warm and turn to water. And when you’re not sure of what the weather might do, leave your Firstlight at home and bring a truly waterproof structure.
Four-season tents are the “take anywhere, do anything” tent, and they are designed to withstand the harshest environments in the world. I’ve watched entire vacations go by from the inside of a 4-season tent as inches of snow and rain fall outside, but I remain dry and comfortable inside (albeit stir crazy and disappointed). Like the old adage says: “don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.” Likewise, don’t bring a tent designed for the Pacific Crest Trail to the stormy realms of the Cascade volcanoes, Denali, or Patagonia’s Torre Valley.
When you are using a 4-season tent, odds are you will be in a climate prone to inhospitable weather. 4-season tents are more robust, heavier, and more durable than standard backpacking tents, and designed to withstand heavy wind, rain and snow. They’re also packed with features, including flies that extend farther down the main body of the tent (and some models feature snow skirts—flaps that are meant to be buried in snow), high bathtubs on the main body to prevent rain and snow from leeching into the tent, and large vestibules that provide ample room for storage and cooking. It’s not uncommon on big mountain expeditions in Alaska to see intricate kitchens where teams have dug pits in the snow and can comfortably stand, cook, and socialize in the enclosed space of their vestibule.
Keep in mind that gear companies make 4-season tents for different uses. If you’re biking through Europe in the fall, you probably don’t need a tent built to withstand storms at 25,000 feet on Mount Everest. To help differentiate the different types of tents, see our tent categories included in the product specs and the top of the buying above.
Most of the tents above feature a pole-supported design that provides 360-degree security from wind, rain, snow, and bugs. But for those that value weight above all else, a 4-season shelter offers weather protection that can come close to a treeline model at half the weight or less. To maximize their strength-to-weight ratios, popular 4-season shelters like the Black Diamond Mega Light above and Hyperlite Mountain Gear Ultamid 2 are floorless, non-freestanding, and utilize a center pole (often a trekking pole or ski pole) to create a taut, pyramid shape. When properly set up, these tents can hold strong in moderate wind, and shed driving rain and snowfall.
We find that 4-season shelters are most appealing for trips where the weather is mild and weight wins out: long ski traverses, fast-and-light climbs, and backcountry treks that cover a lot of distance and require a light pack. And as we mentioned in the Mega Light write-up above, we think they are practically indispensable for basecamping on snow, when you can dig out the base and create a sitting and standing area for up to four. But trimming so much weight does come with its compromises: the floorless construction invites snow and bugs inside and sacrifices warmth and protection from the elements. Furthermore, the set up isn’t as intuitive as a freestanding tent. But in capable hands, a 4-season shelter can be a formidable and spacious home, and a good way to cut pounds from your pack.
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