Tent Season Ratings: What Do They Mean?

Understanding the seasonality rating of a tent is the first step in determining whether or not it’s cut out for the kind of camping you plan on doing. In this guide, we teach you all you need to know.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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Tent season ratings are, in essence, a shorthand guide that gives us—the buyer—a ballpark idea of how any tent will perform in different conditions and environments from camping in mid-summer in good weather to when you need the best extreme cold weather tent you can find..

As demonstrated below, however, the term ‘season rating’ is in fact a bit of a misnomer or at least can, to the uninducted, prove to be very misleading.

To clear up the confusion, below we’ve added a quick guide to the conditions and environments for which tents with different season ratings are best suited and how you can expect each rating to translate into performance in the field.

Key Takeaways

  • The season rating you need depends on where and when you do most of your camping
  • Pay close attention to the tent’s specifications and features to get a better idea of how it will perform in different conditions
  • A tent’s hydrostatic head is the most accurate indicator of its waterproofness

One-Season Tents

These tents are the most basic variety of tent on the market. They are typically characterized by cheaply made materials that lack water resistance, stability, durability, and ruggedness.

For the most part, these tents are sold in supermarkets or on unspecialized marketplace websites rather than in dedicated camping or outdoors stores. While a one-season tent might be okay for a few nights in the garden in perfect weather, their lack of waterproofing and stability mean they’re unsuitable for use in all but the most benign conditions.

  • Fragile materials
  • Cheap
  • Lack water-resistance, durability, and ruggedness
  • Hydrostatic head rating unlikely to attain level required for classification as ‘waterproof’

Two-Season Tents

These represent a slight upgrade on one-season tents but are still a poor choice for anyone headed into the backcountry to do their camping or hoping to stay dry in all but the lightest and most short-lived showers.

Typically, two-season tents have a more robust build than one-season tents but share their lack of waterproofing and unsuitability for use in backcountry environments.

  • Designed for use in summer only (or shoulder seasons in warmer parts of the globe)
  • Waterproofing capacity adequate only for light showers
  • Not a good option for camping outside of established campsites

Three-Season Tents

Three-season tents are the most popular variety of tents out there. This is largely due to their versatility and the fact that they are designed for use in the conditions in which the vast majority of campers do their camping, namely, spring through fall.

Three-season tents are harder to pigeon-hole than others and this classification covers everything from ultralight backpacking models intended for use on multi-day backcountry treks and thru-hikes through to more robust, heavier models better suited to car camping and campsite camping.

For the most part, they use a double-walled construction to maximize the potential setup configurations, mesh walls to improve ventilation and keep bugs at bay in warmer temps, breathable fabrics, and offer enough water resistance to deal with prolonged exposure to rainfall and fend off heavy downpours.

All of the above attributes make these tents the most versatile option available and a one-size-fits-all kinda tent for anyone not inclined to do their camping in extended periods of harsh weather or in the high mountains or other environments where conditions are particularly harsh.

  • Versatile
  • Suitable for summer and shoulder-season use
  • Fewer poles and lighter fabrics than four-season models
  • Superior ventilation
  • Solid waterproofing

Four-Season Tents

Four-season tents are designed to withstand the very worst the weather can throw at us—fierce winds, frigid temperatures, driving rain, and snow—and, as such, are often also marketed as “winter tents”.

They typically have geodesic or semi-geodesic pole geometries that provide greater stability in high winds and under hefty snow loads. Their highly waterproof, abrasion-resistant fabrics also provide added resistance to heavy rainfall and snow, which can be highly corrosive to laminated waterproof membranes. In most cases, this means high-denier fly and floor fabrics with laminated membranes boasting hydrostatic head ratings in excess of 5,000 mm and 10,000 mm respectively.

Beyond the heavier fabrics and superior waterproofing, four-season tents differ from the three-season variety in a number of less fundamental characteristics and features. These include snow or storm flaps around the tent’s perimeter to block snow and drafts, a reduction in mesh ventilation panels, and added square footage to accommodate the larger bulk of winter gear.

The term “four-season”, however, is very misleading…

While a three-season tent can be used in spring, summer, and fall conditions, most four-season tents are typically suitable for winter only—their robust weatherproofing, thicker fabrics, and lack of ventilation mean most models will be somewhere between very stuffy and decidedly suffocating in the year’s warmer months.

  • Highly waterproof and windproof
  • Superior stability in high winds
  • Less ventilation than 3-season tents
  • Tough, heavy-duty, abrasion-resistant fabrics
  • Storm/snow flaps at the base of the tent
  • Overkill for all but winter or cooler shoulder-season camping

Want to see some options for 4 season tents? Check out our buyer’s guides for our top picks and for more budget-friendly options.

Last update on 2023-05-29 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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