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Choose the best four-season backpacking tent for winter camping

This tent is designed for winter camping, and cold temperatures.
533 400 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

How do you choose a four-season backpacking tent? Well, the right tent for you for winter camping may take some looking.
Here are some considerations.

by Leon Pantenburg

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A hot weather tent should have good mosquito netting, ventilation and a design that allows easy air circulation. But choosing a four-season tent that will be used in cold weather and/or deep snow may require a lot more thought and comparison shopping.

These Eureka! Timberline tents have held up well for almost a decade of use by Boy Scout Troop 18. Central Oregon's winter is beautiful, (Pantenburg photo)

These Eureka! Timberline tents have held up well for almost a decade of hard use by Boy Scout Troop 18 of Bend, OR (Pantenburg photo)

A question came in about choosing the best four-season backpacking tent. Well, one design, brand or size doesn’t fit all.  So I asked for input from an expert, my old college roommate, Bob Patterson.

Patterson is a retired firefighter and EMT, and as part of his job, was outdoors year-round. A skilled outdoorsman, Patterson is a regular in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness every year, and is a former member of the National Ski Patrol. He does a lot of  Minnesota COLD camping.

When it comes to choosing your winter tent, start with the conditions you may encounter. In Oregon’s Cascades Mountains, where I do most of my camping, the snow is usually deep, but the temperatures don’t typically get all that cold. Where Patterson camps, in northern Minnesota, it can get very cold, with temperatures routinely hitting  -20 degrees.

But wherever you are, you are at the mercy of the weather conditions.

Here are some thoughts on choosing the best four-season tent for your needs.

Patterson says a four-season tent must:

  • Be free standing
  • Have a door on each end – second exit.
  • Be strong enough to stand up to wind and snow load – with a low profile, strong poles, snow shedding design, lots of tie downs.
  • Have a fly that completely covers down to the ground.
  • Have a bathtub floor. STAY AWAY FROM ANYTHING WITH A POLYETHYLENE FLOOR!!!
  • Have good hardware – hooks, clips, and slide adjustments should be easily operated with gloves.  Don’t get anything that needs to be fastened with your bare fingers.

Ventilation

For winter camping, moisture can be a life and death consideration, in certain circumstances. If your sleeping bag gets wet from condensation, it may be impossible to dry out.

“Ever since manufacturers tried to ‘idiot proof’ tents by making them fire retardant, they don’t breathe well,” Patterson said. “Looking at the market, all of the materials I have seen in many years are fire retardant. Hence, manufacturers added ventilation to try to control interior condensation.”

A tent has to have adequate ventilation to keep moisture condensation down, Patterson said, but the vents have to be appropriately sized.

“Consider the size of the vent,”  he said. “If the vents in the two person, four person, and eight person tents are all of the same size – Guess what’s going to happen when you put more people in the tent?

But sometimes, the additional ventilation comes at a cost.

“When you need to add ventilation,” Patterson added, “you no longer get the extra 10 degrees of insulation from the tent that used to be the standard.”

The tent will need to be large enough for the occupants to keep their sleeping bags away from condensation on the walls, Patterson said, and the condensation is usually the worst where the waterproof floor wraps up to the walls.

Here are some other tent selection thoughts from Patterson:

  • Vestibule: “Never buy a tent (I think I have around 20 of them) without a vestibule.  I prefer the built-on type, but add-ons can work too.  The vestibule is your only chance of keeping snow out of your tent.  You can also cook in them, preferably with the vestibule open, but I don’t.  The Darwin Award winners who cooked inside their tents are the reason for all of the required fire retardant materials,” he said.
  • Weight is a factor.  Buying a larger tent for the room means it will be heavier.  Tents that are made to withstand violent weather are made of heavier material.  If you are pulling equipment on a sled, a little heavier tent isn’t as big a consideration as if you are back country skiing or snow shoeing with a pack.  When it comes to tents, strong plus light weight will be more expensive.
  • The fly should come down to the ground.  None of them do, but the closer the better.  In a blowing snow storm, snow will blow up the sides and into the vents.  Some people even sew on additional material to lengthen the fly.  During a snow storm campers must be vigilant to keep snow from blocking all lower ventilation.
  • Always seam seal ALL seams on the waterproof material.  Seal them on both sides.  PLASTISEAM is absolutely the best I’ve found.  My Timberline was in two-inches of standing/running water with a friend inside and it never leaked a drop.  Water based seam sealers don’t work.
  • Corner anchors:  In deep snow use sticks, skis, snowshoe tails, etc., to anchor the tent securely.  If the corners of the tent don’t have big loops that will accommodate such items, be sure there is a place to tie on a loop of Paracord.

Recommendations:

This is Bob’s Sierra Designs Four-Man Extreme shown in the Boundary Waters in February. (Bob Patterson photo)

When buying tents, you’ll generally get what you pay for. Here are three that have proven themselves:

Eureka! Timberline: Troop 18 has been using several of these four-man tents year-round, under all conditions,  for almost a decade.  Some of the outfitters in Ely, MN used to supply Timberlines for winter outfitting, Patterson says.

“I’ve probably done more camping overall in my four-man Timberline than all of the rest of them put together,” he said.  “The four- man outfitter has a built-on vestibule and plenty of room for two.”

Sierra Designs Extreme:  This is Patterson’s favorite winter camping tent, for all the reasons listed above. This is his specialized winter camping tent.

Eureka! Tetragon 5: I bought a Tetragon about nine years ago. It was inexpensive, and has served me well over at least 80 nights of camping under all conditions. Since I can  generally find a place to pitch my shelter out of the wind, the lack of a vestibule has not proven to be a problem. In a couple of instances, I dug down into a drift and built a snow block wall to break the wind.

But regardless of where you are, before pitching any tent, the first step is to get out of the wind.

“It doesn’t really make much difference what tent you use if you can get down in a sheltered area,” Patterson said,  “and not subject to a howling gale.”

That might mean digging down into a snow drift, or finding a thicket that will break the wind. In some instances, a tarp over a snow trench might be the warmest choice!

Here’s probably the most important point about buying a winter tent, according to Patterson:

“If you only have one tent, buy your tent for what you’re going to encounter 90% of the time,” he said.  “Learn and develop techniques for dealing with extreme conditions when you encounter them.  If you can afford an extra tent, get a specialized one for those extreme conditions.”

Picking the best four-season tent for your needs is not easy. But give your needs some thought and check out a lot of  different designs. If you want the “perfect tent” it’ll take some looking.

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