It is quite common to come across the terms three and four season tents, especially when struggling to choose between the two. When I was camping in Europe, I’ve noticed a few differences between the types and learned in which conditions you should use them. A few sources online have stated what I’ve already known, although I was still able to learn a couple of new, interesting facts. What is the difference between 3 and 4 season tents – let’s finally answer the open-ended question.
There are five main differences between 3 and 4 season tents:
- Three season tents are relatively lightweight when compared to 4 season tents.
- Fours season tents were primarily designed for winter usage while three season ones are recommended for fall, spring and summer.
- 3 season tents usually offer better ventilation due to the meshed vents they feature.
- 4 season tents are harder to assemble.
- Three season tents are generally cheaper than four season ones.
1. Substantial Weight Differences
Three season tents are relatively lightweight compared to their four-season counterparts. This is why they are often referred to as backpacking tents as they are easy to pack and carry.
Despite being lightweight, three-season tents provide adequate protection and shelter from mild rain and winds. The most distinct feature of these tents is that they lack some safety features and often use lightweight materials like sleeveless poles and thin aluminum frames.
They can’t withstand heavy loads from above. Unlike 3-season tents, 4-season tents are durable and heavy-duty. They can sustain heavy loads from snow and ice buildup. The other difference is that four-season tents have double walls for added support against strong winds and snow.
2. Season Compatibility
A three-season tent is recommended for use in temperate conditions like fall, spring and summer while a 4-season tent is commonly used during the winter season.
A 3-season tent is pitched with rigid rainfly to help withstand light snows and downpours. However, they are not suitable for use in harsh weather conditions like heavy snow, storms and strong winds.
Four season tents are best suited for use in snowy conditions and areas with severe winds. They offer protection against snow buildup, hail, ice, and high winds.
4-season tents have rain-flies or vestibules that extend to the ground thus blocking strong winds. They are also equipped with flaps that fold inwards to block out snow and improve the overall stability of the tent. Four season tents are appropriate for use in winter.
3. Ventilation & Breathability
Three season tents have open mesh walls for natural ventilation while 4-season tents are mesh-free. Notwithstanding the vented walls, these tents still provide some level of protection against direct winds.
The tents eliminate frost buildup by allowing fresh air to get through the canvas. When setting up a three-season tent, the side rain cover is often made to sit above the ground to allow free air flow.
On the contrary, 4 season tents use polyester or nylon to block strong winds and trap some heat inside. Vents may be provided to help control condensation although vents are not a priority in cold conditions.
4. Assembly Difficulty
Three season tents are easy to set up, dismantle and assemble, unlike four season tents. The most exciting feature about 3-season tents is their ease of use.
They are quick to set up and assemble, unlike 4-season tents that involve complicated procedures. It can take you an average of 10 minutes to set up a four-season tent.
Some four season tents come with an innovative construction that allows you to strip them down. A basic structure of a four-season canvas can be used during hot summer nights, but when bulked up, they can keep one safe during snowy conditions.
5. They Actually Differ in Price
3-season tents are cheaper and ideal for use in areas where weather conditions are predictable while four season tents are expensive and suitable for use in areas with constantly changing weather.
If you plan to camp out in snowy and colder areas with moderate winds of not more than 30mph, then you can choose a 3-season tent.
This is because it is light in weight, affordable and easy to use. In fact, you can use a 3-season tent all year round provided there are no harsh weather conditions.
But in case you need extra warmth, extra peace of mind, comfort, and flexibility, then you can select a four-season tent.
Four season tents are suitable for use in case weather is challenging and not predictable. They are also expensive compared to three season tents.
What Does a 3 Season Tent Mean?
A three-season tent is camping tent designed for use during the summer, spring and autumn seasons. These tents protect against light rains, hails, wind and cold weather.
Three season tents are sometimes referred to as backpacking tents because they are easy to fold and carry around. Even though they are lightweight, three-season tents are large in size and are relatively durable compared to most pup tents.
Their sizing varies depending on the number of campers that intend to use the shelter. Moreover, three-season tents usually have two entrances for improved ventilation. The other notable feature of three season tents is the rainfly found on all openings.
What is a 4 Season Tent?
A 4-season tent is a tent designed for use during the winter season. These tents feature resilient fabrics and can handle extreme weather conditions such as frigid temperatures, storms, snow buildup, heavy rains, and strong winds.
They are built with strong and sturdy materials to provide extra support. Although it is referred to as 4-season, it is best suited for use only during winter.
Moreover, these tents are roomier than backpacking tents. Others have large and hooped vestibules that create additional space to keep and store other essential camping gear.
Can You Use a Three Season Tent in Winter?
Yes. It is possible to use a 3-season tent in winter provided the weather conditions are moderate. But again, the tent should also have solid walls and rainfly or even a tarp that extends to the ground.
A three-season tent is mainly designed to provide shelter and protection against moderate winds, and light rains and mild snow.
Those who plan to use their tents once or twice in winter can still use a three season tent. However, it may not be recommended for those who plan to go out camping regularly.
When using a three season tent in winter, consider using it below a tree line where there is better protection against gusty winds. Take time to find an adequate location or protected site before stamping out the pitch.
Can You Use a 4-Season Tent in Summer?
A four season tent is not recommended for use during summer. This type of tent is only designed for use during winter and in cold areas.
If you use a winter tent in summer, then it might not provide adequate airflow for a more comfortable stay. Although some four-season tents can be stripped down and used during summer, the procedure is somehow tedious and complicated.
For best performance, merely stick to a three season tent if you’re camping out in summer.
Does a 4 Season Tent Feature a Higher Hydrostatic Head Value?
Tents are usually water resistant – at least the modern ones. Still, not all of them withstand water the same. To describe how well a fabric would resist water, manufacturers usually use the term ‘hydrostatic head’.
In short, the higher the value is – the better the canvas would resist water. Four season tents typically feature a higher hydrostatic head than 3 season ones.
That means their fabric is denser and features smaller pores through which water molecules might penetrate. These pores are essential for ventilation, and that would be the reason why 4 season tents are relatively more substantial than 3 season ones.
If you are new to this term – please pay attention to it from now on. Almost the entire gear you are using features a hydrostatic head value, from you rain jackets to your sleeping bags. Make sure that your equipment features the right qualities to withstand the pouring rain if anticipated.
Three & Four Season Tents Temperature Ranges
So a 3 season tent would endure winter a bit worse than a 4 season tent, it is quite apparent by now. Drawing a line to determine a specific temperature range is quite tricky since there are many factors you should take into account.
In general, I would say that you shouldn’t use 3 season tents in temperatures lower than 0 degrees – when they drop below that, you will start noticing an apparent difference between 3 and 4 season tents.
Still, you should also take into account your sleeping bag and liner. A down-filled sleeping bag would probably do a better job in keeping you warm than a synthetic one and would allow you to be more flexible with your tent.
Also, it does matter if you are camping in snow or not. When the snow piles up on your canvas, it has a more significant impact than temperature.
If the weather drops below 0 degrees and you are facing some strong winds – go with the 4 season tent, it would probably do better.
Either way, make sure that you are wearing proper clothing. Do not sleep naked in your tent. In contrast to a common belief, it wouldn’t keep you warm as sleeping with clothes on.
Will a Tarp Improve a 3 Season Tent Performances?
If you own a 3 season tent and would like to use it in harsh winter conditions, a tarp would probably help you achieve that.
One of the reasons you should put a tarp over your tent is for protection from above. I’ve previously discussed how it might shield you from the pouring snow and acorns, although it would do the same with snow.
When you are camping under treetops, you might mislead yourself into thinking that the leaves and branches would catch the snow and shelter you.
Nevertheless, the snow does most of its damage when it falls from the tops as a pile, once the trees could no longer hold its weight. That is where a tarp would come handy. Make sure that you build it in a squared shape so that the snow doesn’t slide on your tent.
If you build it in a pyramid shape – keep a significant gap between its edges and your tent corners. When you use a tarp, you could withstand hard weather conditions while camping even inside a 3 season tent.
How Else Can I Bring a 3 Season Tent Closer to a 4 Season One?
If you own a 3 season shelter and would like to improve it a little – you might use a tarp and a down-filled sleeping bag, as mentioned.
Still, what made the most significant difference for me was using a sleeping bag liner. I’ve discussed that topic elaborate on a different article and explained why these liners are actually worth it.
If you decide to go for it, make sure that you pick the cotton-type liners – these would probably be the warmest (although ventilation is a little compromised).
Make sure that you use your sleeping bag loops so that the liner is firmly attached and doesn’t slide away while you are asleep. If neither of the solutions in here had worked for you and you still feel cold in your 3 season tent – you should probably get yourself a 4 season one.
It is essential to choose the right gear before starting your camping adventure. The tent would be your temporary home, and I highly suggest you pick it wisely.
The anticipated weather should play a significant role when having to choose between 3 and 4 season tents. If you go winter camping and the forecast predicts snow – please stick to the four-season one.
It would better insulate the cold and impressively resist the strong winds. There are ways in which you can use a three season tent in harsh conditions, as mentioned above.Nevertheless, in harsh conditions, they might not be enough, and you will have to invest in a better tent.
I hope my article has shed some light and helped you better understand the differences between the two tent types. If you have any questions, let me know all about them by leaving a comment below!