When buying a tent, the possibilities seem endless. It can be even harder to decipher what all the lingo means, especially if you are a newbie camper. For example, the names can be misleading, as a 4 Season tent, is rarely used outside of one season — winter, while a 1 Season or 2 Season tent can be used in three seasons. If you’re scratching your head already, let’s dive into this together.
Each brand of a tent and each retailer follows their own rules on the Season Rating, which unfortunately means that even the avid camping community disagrees on what the ratings mean and what they should mean.
The basic thing to know is that the numbers aren’t necessarily describing the number of seasons the tent can be used in. The numbers are ratings. 1 Season and 2 Season ratings are virtually the same. The 3 Season is sort of the middle ground. 4 Season is the winter tent. And 5 Season is the expedition tent. While some manufacturers will brag that their 4 Season tent is really an all-season tent, you should take this with a grain of salt. Two ventilation windows are hardly enough to provide comfortable temperatures in extremely hot weather.
To help you understand the true differences between the tents, I have compiled some descriptions and examples for you.
1 Season Tents
These are the most basic of basic tents. They are thin, often come without rainfly, and are intended for summer use. They can be stretched to be used in mild spring and fall temperatures if you do not have any inclement weather. They usually have very light waterproofing, which means they could withstand a quick sun shower, but not the thunderstorms that spring can be known for.
1 Season ratings are perfectly fine for people who will watch the weather and will only camp when it is nice and warm outside. 1 Season tents are so unpopular, however, that I struggled to even find you an example of a good 1 Season tent. Just know, if you see a 1 Season rating when you’re browsing that it is not meant to withstand much weather at all.
Pop up and instant beach tents all fall into this category of 1 season tents.
2 Season Tents
Like 1 Season tents, 2 Season tents are also extremely basic. These come with our without rainfly, but even with a rainfly, it won’t hold up to heavy storms or winter conditions.
Most retailers and camping experts group 1 Season tents and 2 Season tents as the same thing. While there isn’t much of a difference, you should be aware that you can see tents rated 1 Season or 2 Season.
Here is a 2 Season tent, that, despite its name, is best for summer: Alpine Mountain Gear: Alaskan Series Solo-Plus Tent. This is a solo sleeper, great for backpacking. According to product descriptions, it is well ventilated with a mesh roof. Not exactly something you would take hiking through Alaska or the harsher parts of the Alps, right?
3 Season Tents
These tents are the most versatile tents, and therefore the most commonly bought and sold tents. If you are looking to pack the biggest bang for your buck, stop here.
3 Season tents stand up to harsh rainstorms while remaining ventilated (just enough to prevent tent condensation) enough to be comfortable in summer, spring, and fall. Although they are not ideal for winter, you could even make them work for mild winter weather if you brought the right sleeping gear and clothing to protect your body from the cold. These almost always come with a rainfly, and if you find one that doesn’t have one, don’t buy it.
The perks of buying a 3 Season tent over a 1 or 2 Season is that they are meant to hold up to heavy rainstorms and high winds. The one pictured here is a Backcountry Lodgepole 3P Tent: 3 Person 3 Season. It is excellently priced for what it is, and will even hold up against mild snow.
4 Season Tents
Perhaps the most misleading rating, 4 Season tents are not necessarily meant for four seasons. They are most often meant for winter only. You might be able to use them in early spring and late fall, but they will almost certainly leave you sweating in the summer. Even ones that claim to offer breathability and year-round functionality can often fall short in extremely warm climates.
However, the tick fabric means that during summer camping, any tent cooling solutions will be more effective as there are little airgaps and better insulation.
The 4 Season rating means that the fabric will often be double-layered, heavily weatherproofed and waterproofed tent, and sturdy enough to withstand a moderate snowstorm or extreme windstorms. Because of the double-layered protection, however, 4 Season tents do tend to be a bit heavier. And if you choose not to sacrifice in weight, you may sacrifice in weatherproofing — so make sure if you are backpacking you find a tent that balances both weight and weatherproofing well.
3 Season tents can easily be converted to functional winter tents by adding some extra insulation (how-to guide), which is very cheap and effective.
Pictured here is The North Face Assault 3 Tent. You will notice that 4 Season tents are strikingly more expensive than 1, 2, and 3 Season tents. This has to do with the extra craftsmanship that is required to build a sturdy, well-insulated tent, that will withstand harsh winter conditions.
5 Season Tents
5 Season tents, also known as expedition tents or professional use tents, are meant to withstand the harshest of harsh winters. Take the MSR Stormking for example. Priced at well over $1,000, this tent boasts double walls that protect from cascade snow dumps. Their proprietary poles are “virtually indestructible” even in severe weather.
5 Season tents are designed with purpose. As such, they will not likely suit you well for anything other than moderate to harsh winter conditions. They also pack the biggest price punch. You shouldn’t even consider buying one of these unless you are a professional or an aspiring professional camper.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you use a 2 Season tent in the winter?
Yes, if you must, but it isn’t ideal. This tent has very little weatherproofing and is meant mostly for dry, warm climates. If you like your 2 Season tent for its lightweight functionality and are considering using it in winter conditions, keep in mind that you will need to carry warmer supplies, such as foam floor mats and well-insulated sleeping bags to keep you warm.
Also, check the weather forecast. If you are predicted to have snow of any kind, or rain that is heavier than a light shower, just don’t risk it. Opt for at least a 3 Season, though 4 Season is the absolute best for average winter conditions.
Are 4 Season tents lightweight enough to backpack with?
Yes, if you shop and pack appropriately. Most 4 Season tents weigh in at around 10 lbs. Some are as low as 5 lbs, and others are as heavy as 17 lbs. When backpacking, weight is everything, but you can’t sacrifice your sleep and well-being on weight alone.
A 10 lb tent is not that much of a sacrifice for the average person trekking through moderate winter conditions, but it will take up a fourth to a third of your pack. Steer away from anything over 10 lbs unless you will be sharing the load with another person.
I enjoy camping in all kinds of weather. What Season rating should I get to camp in all seasons?
If you are looking for one, solid purchase — buy a 3 Season Tent. While some 4 Season tents boast that they are “all-season” tents, I would argue that all-season tents don’t truly exist. If your shelter is insulated enough to withstand winter conditions, then it likely won’t be ventilated sufficiently to withstand the hottest of summers.
3 Season tents do offer the most versatility, but I do suggest broadening your perspective on tents. If you like camping in all kinds of weather, it might be time to start investing in multiple tents so that you always have the best tent for your excursion.
I recommend three tents: a solo sleeping 2 Season tent for your individual excursions in moderate weather; a three to four sleeping 3 Season tent for your family and friend camping adventures; and a four to five sleeping 4 Season tent for your winter treks through the mountains. This will give you plenty of options, regardless of the weather.
Can you use a 4 Season tent in the summer?
Sure, if you like to sweat. Some 4 Season tents do claim that they offer both insulation and ventilation, but you have to understand that even the most customized tents tend to serve one purpose better than others. It is not likely that you will find both a well insulated and well-ventilated tent that works as well as the manufacturer claims. The insulation of a 4 Season tent is wonderful. Don’t ruin it by using it in the summer.
I will be camping in multiple different weather conditions on one trip. What tent should I pack?
Determine what conditions you will spend most of your time in. If they will be mostly moderate, warm temperatures, take a 3 Season Tent. If it will be mostly cold temperatures or harsh conditions such as heavy rain, snow storms, or hail, take a 4 Season Tent. When in doubt, opt for the better insulation of a 4 Season Tent.
There are ways to help cool down your tent if you find that you are too hot. Pitch your tent in the shade, sleep in less gear and clothing, and lay directly on the ground, rather than on a foam mat.
The tent rating system can be confusing, but it doesn’t have to leave you clueless. I hope that this guide has been helpful on your journey to purchasing the best tent for your needs. If you have a question that we didn’t answer here, please comment below, and we will get back to you.