Photo: Daniel Holz/Tandemstock

How To Choose the Right Winter Tent

Here’s how to buy the winter tent that’s best for you.

Imagine this: You’re waiting out a raging winter storm and all that’s between you and the elements is your tent. You don’t want to worry about high winds snapping the tent poles, or turning an excessively tall tent into a sail—let alone the cold breeze wafting in through mesh paneling. Most tents won’t have to face such rigors and will suffice for a calmer weekend of camping in the woods. However, more specific features matter if you’re headed out in the winter months or going mountaineering at any time of year. You’ll need a robust, specialized tent that can protect you. While many different styles and designs exist, focus on function when buying a winter tent. Even the tiniest detail can make a big difference when you’re hunkered down in a storm (you’ll be thankful for the forethought). Consider the pros and cons of each type of tent, and what features you need most. Here’s how to buy the winter tent that’s best for you.

Who Needs One?

If you’re not going mountaineering, and you don’t plan to camp during the cold winter months, then you probably don’t need to be shopping for winter tents. Depending on what type of activity you’re doing, you’ll want different features in your winter tent. For example, an alpinist doing a technical climb who has to carry all their belongings will want a pared-down, lightweight tent. Someone who is base-camping or dragging a sled on a backcountry tour will be OK with something a little heavier that affords a few more creature comforts. If you’re a winter camper, hunter, glamper, mountaineer, or alpinist then you should consider one. 

Three-Season vs. Four-Season Tents

A four-season tent is designed to be functional in all four earthly seasons, while a three-season tent is built for every season except for winter. If you’re camping below treeline and it’s not stormy, you can make your three-season tent work just fine year-round. In terms of winter tents, four-seasons are the way to go, but what makes them different? 

Four-season tents are built with sturdier poles, and use stiffer, higher denier materials (thicker threads which makes them more durable) in order to withstand high winds and snow loads. While many three-season tents use a lot of mesh for ventilation, on four-seasons you’ll mostly find nylon fabric to keep the warmth in, and just enough vents to dump moisture but with the option of being sealed completely during a storm. They’ll have more guy-out points (loops on the exterior to secure the tent down). While it may be noisy waiting out a storm, you’ll have peace of mind that your tent is up to the job of keeping you safe and warm. 

Double-Wall vs. Single-Wall

This is a straightforward, literal distinction. A double-wall tent has both the inner compartment that you sleep in and then a separate rainfly that goes on top of it (less expensive, easier to stay dry). A single-wall tent is just a single layer of material (usually far lighter, often tougher to ventilate). What you should choose comes down to the activity you’re doing as this is basically a question of weight: A single-wall tent is better for folks trying to go fast and light, moving camp everyday, or just looking to save weight in general; if you’re going to car camp or base camp and return to the same tent each night, then you can spring for a heavier double-wall tent. 

Photo: Daniel Holz/Tandemstock

Features To Factor

Weight

A single-wall, four-season tent can weigh as little as 3.5 pounds and double-wall tents are often in the 5- to 10-pound range. If you’re glamping, hunting, or setting up a base camp below treeline, a heavy-duty canvas backwoods tent is worth considering. These are great for extended stays or folks seeking major comfort. They’re heavy (you’ll likely need a canoe, a vehicle, or an animal to move them), more expensive, and they take longer to set up, but they’re spacious, comfortable, and typically compatible with wood-burning stoves.

Size and Floor Space

If you’re on an alpine mission or doing something where weight is a concern, you’ll want a two-person tent for two people. If you’re base camping or can afford the extra weight, or are in a super storm-prone area, you’ll appreciate having two people in a three-person tent. During a weeklong storm, the extra elbow room can save your sanity. Even if no storm strikes, it’s nice to have more space to store those bulky, cold-weather layers. Check the square footage, dimensions (especially if you’re tall), and the headroom. Most manufacturers have a diagram so you can see what it would be like with a few people inside. Can you sit up all the way or will your head hit the side of the tent? Having extra headroom when you’re base camping is nice, it can be uncomfortable to wait out a storm if you have to be laying down while in your tent (ultralight tents are often this way, with limited head space).

Doors

Tent entry depends on the door configuration. If there’s one door on the front of the tent then it’s relatively easy for everyone to get in and out. If the one door is on the side, then there’s always someone who has to crawl over everyone in order to go to the bathroom or take their turn digging out from a snowstorm. Doors add weight, so if weight isn’t an issue, then two doors always feels like a luxury. If you’re alpine climbing where weight is an issue, and you’re not going in and out of your tent all the time, then one door is the way. 

Vestibule

A vestibule is like the mudroom for your tent. It’s where you take your boots off, drop your pack, and shake off the snow before getting inside your warm, dry tent. Fast-and-light folks may forgo the vestibule (or their tent may not even come with one), but base-camp folks will want a rainfly with a large vestibule––the space between your tent and the fly right outside of the door. (Pro tip: Shovel out a footwell to add extra storage and make it easier to put your boots on in the morning.) If you know you’ll need more storage or space to cook, take a closer look at the shape of the vestibule and make sure it fits your needs. Some tents have two doors and two vestibules, which is nice for extended cold-weather trips and for partners to keep their belongings organized. 

Guylines

This is a major feature of four-season tents. Your tent should have reinforced guy-out points (so tent fabric doesn’t tear in a storm). These are loops on the outside of the tent meant for attaching guylines, which are then secured to rocks or stakes in the ground. Securing guylines help keep your tent in place, and when done right, make it so there’s no annoying flapping fabric when it’s super windy. Before you use your tent, set it up and pre-attach your guylines so you're ready to go when setting up in inclement weather. Reflective guy lines are a good idea so no one trips on them at night. If you’re camping on snow, your normal tent stakes won’t cut it. You’ll need special snow stakes, or you can bury stuff sacks full of snow.

Flooring

The waterproof floor wraps up around the bottom of the tent walls a few inches––kind of like a bathtub––in order to keep water out. Bringing a tent footprint is nice, but adds extra weight and is not totally necessary. 

Extras

Other features to look out for, depending on your needs, are ceiling loops where you can hang headlamps or wet socks, and pockets at each person’s head to store personal belongings.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.