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What Makes A Good Winter Tent? It’s Getting Chilly Outside!

Depending on where you live and camp, you could skip this post. However, living in the Northeast part of the country gets wicked cold. Because I am getting into backpacking after my hiatus raising kids, I just love hiking in the winter. So, as an extension to that, I want to learn about winter backpacking and camping.

So, I decided to learn more about what makes a good winter tent. Here is what I found.

A good winter tent keeps backpackers and mountaineers safe and protects them from extremely high winds and low temperatures. Winter tents withstand heavy loads without collapsing during blizzards and heavy snowfall.

What characteristics do winter tents need to perform at their highest level and keep you safe?

If you are interested in checking out the best 4-season tents you can find them by clicking here.

Characteristics necessary in a 4-season winter tent

First, the tents must be able to withstand high winds. Because of this, tents are made from sturdy materials that bounce back from heavy winds without losing their rigidity.

Second, the winter tent must bear substantial loads from snow and powerful winds; often at the same time. Blizzards roll into campgrounds often with little warning. These storms bring with them super-fast wind speeds and gusts up to hurricane force.

Third, a solid winter tent retains its shape after being pummeled all night during a storm. The winds kick up, the snow falls heavy on the tent, and the tent shape-shifts throughout the night. As long as it returns to its upright position all is well.

However, in the blink of an eye, a tent that loses its form becomes extremely dangerous and life-threatening. For this reason, 4-season winter tents come equipped with strong and flexible poles and thicker tent fabrics.

Fourth, a tent is required to repel precipitation. Snow, rain, and sleet lead to a wet barrier on top of the tent. The tent must withstand the hydrostatic pressure difference and prevent water from entering the tent. For this reason, winter tents have multiple layers of protection, double walls, and a higher hydrostatic head rating.

Finally, a winter tent in the harsh arctic-like environment must have a durable, waterproof bottom. A 4-season tent comes with a durable and puncture-resistant and waterproof bottom.

But how can you tell if you have a 3-season and 4-season tent?

What is the difference between a 3-season and 4-season tent?

Choosing the right tent is paramount to having a successful backpacking trip. Both 3 and 4-season tents protect you during a backpacking trip. However, the 4-season/ winter tent protects you during extremes in weather systems.

3-Season tents

3-season tent
3-season tent

A 3-season tents design protects you from mild to moderate rainstorms with light to moderate winds. Termed 3-season because it is best used during the spring, summer, and fall months.

These tents have lightweight fabrics, poles, ground covers, and rainflys to allow easy transport in your backpack. In addition, meshed windows and doors provide ventilation and breathability during hot and humid summer months. And compared to its beefy cousin, the 3-season has a relatively small vestibule.

4-Season/ winter tents

4-season winter tent
4-season winter tent

On the extreme end of the spectrum is the 4-season tent. It is bombproof. These tents design takes a beating in the harshest weather conditions like heavy rains, blizzards, and piercing cold temperatures while providing life-saving protection.

Winter tents have heavier, more durable materials and are either single or double-walled. Their heavy-duty polyester nylon fabric material placed over a rigid exoskeleton provides durability, strength, and extreme weather protection.

In addition, these tents possess very steeply angled sides to prevent snow build-up and often have flaps facing outward to lay snow on for more stability.

What is the temperature tolerance of a 4-season tent?

Because of its construction, a 4-season tent can withstand extremes in temperature. Waterproof and windproof materials like polyester nylon blends provide superior protection. Also, a 4-season tent uses very little nylon for ventilation.

But doesn’t a winter tent get stuffy from the humidity in the tent? One would think. However, these tents are used in the winter months where humidity is lower, and as the temperature drops, so does the humidity.

A good 4-season tent can withstand temperatures far below 0 degrees Fahrenheit. However, that doesn’t mean you can walk around in your skivvies in them. A backpacker still requires a low-temperature sleeping bag, proper clothing including a jacket when sitting in the tent.

We will get to the sleeping bag and clothing in a moment. But for now let’s look at the most often used winter tent design, the geodesic dome.

The geodesic dome tent is the best construction design for a winter tent

biosphere geodesic dome
the biosphere geodesic dome

Walther Bauersfeld, a German Engineer working for the Weiss Company introduced the geodesic dome to the world in 1926. An astronomer friend of Baursfeld asked him to design a planetarium building. After a brief hiatus due to World War I, the Zeiss Company completed the planetarium, known as the Zeiss I Model, in 1923.

According to How Stuff Works, Bauersfeld’s difficult task was to create a building that was extremely lightweight, strong enough to withstand high winds, and large enough to provide a projection area for the planetarium’s stars and planets.

What does that sound like to you? A 4-season tent of course. While not directly intended, the geodesic dome eventually became the be-all, end-all of winter 4-season tent construction.

In the 1970s, Buckminster Fuller designed the first geodesic dome tent with the cooperation of The North Face. Originally realized during the geodesic dome housing phase in the late 1960s and early 1970s, The North Face and Buckminster Fuller created the first geodesic dome tent in 1975. And they say, the rest is history.

What makes the geodesic dome tent so strong?

According to Fdomes.com, a geodesic dome’s strength comes from the coupling of the arch shape with the triangle. The triangle is well-known to be the strongest geometrical shape.

“What comes out of such pairing is an extremely strong structure capable of performing well under massive loads. Due to their fixed sides, triangles that form the framework of a dome transfer force more evenly through their sides than other shapes. Geodesic domes are even said to have withstood fires and earthquakes better than rectangle-based structures.”

Fdomes.com/ What are geodesic domes? Super structures really

How do they construct a geodesic dome tent?

Like other winter tents, a geodesic dome tent has a tent body made of high strength polyester, with a highly water-resistant bathtub style bottom.

Built to endure up to 60 miles per hour wind and windy gusts, the tent features a dual-layer water-resistant exterior. In addition, the ripstop flooring has a hydrostatic head rating of 10,000 mm.

The dome tent has 5 main poles plus an ‘equator’ pole that is used in the construction provide base stability. It has a fully seamed flysheet, 5 small windows with vents, and 2 additional quick open vents.

This tent comfortably sleeps four with the ability for a person to stand upright in the tent.

How do you set up a geodesic dome tent?

If you think that it is hard to set up, check out this video by The North Face. Its a breeze. One would think that setting the tent up takes a long time or is very difficult. You will see in the video below that it is a snap.

These tents are designed for easy setup and takedown because of the conditions where they are used. Set up takes about 10 minutes, a little longer in extreme conditions.

We used the video put out by The North Face of the Geodome 4 Winter Tent.

The North Face Geodome 4 Set Up Video by The North Face

How do you make a winter tent warmer?

The wind is whipping outside and you are thinking. How am I going to make it through the night? I am soooo cold! Have you ever been there? I have. I once spent a night huddled in my 3-season tent in October at 7,703 feet in Gunnison Colorado. Totally unprepared, I froze all night long.

If you don’t want this to happen to you, here are some suggestions for your next trip. When preparing for bed, completely change out of your hiking clothes, especially your socks. Then put on clean, dry clothes, socks, and a beanie hat. If it is very cold then maybe add some gloves. Now you are ready for bed.

14 Ways To Stay Warm In A Winter Tent

  1. Mylar Blanket: Adds warmth directly to your body.
  2. Foam Mat: Provides a layer of insulation between you and the cold tent floor.
  3. Tent-Safe Heater: Provides low-level warmth inside the tent.
  4. Do Light Exercises: Increases circulation and warms up your body. However, don’t overdo it as you don’t want to sweat.
  5. Sleeping Bag Cover: Helps keep your body warm in the sleeping bag with you.
  6. Hot Water Bottle: Old fashioned remedy to keep you warm.
  7. Eat a High-Calorie Meal: This will provide energy to your body and increase your core temperature. Greenbelly makes super tasty meals with lots of calories. The meals are great for weekend and weeklong trips. I don’t find the meals helpful on day trips.
  8. Use a Balaclava: Will keep your head warm and not lose body heat through your noggin.
  9. Heat Rocks: If you are desert camping can dry this trick. Will keep body temperature up.
  10. Hand and Foot Warmers: Simple way to keep your hands and feet warm. They last for a long time. They act as the heated rocks.
  11. Cuddle Up Buttercup: Two people’s body heat is better than one.
  12. Low-Temperature Sleeping Bag: Always have the best sleeping bag for the trip. Make sure you purchase a bag that is rated for below the expected temperatures.
  13. Moisture Absorber/ Dehumidifier: These are fairly inexpensive and portable. They help reduce the humidity and help the tent stay comfortable.
  14. Pets: A dog strategically placed helps keep the heat in.

The two biggest health concerns when winter camping: frostbite and hypothermia

When winter backpacking, the two biggest health concerns are frostbite and hypothermia.

Frostbite occurs after prolonged exposure to the cold

Frostbite is damage to the skin when exposed to temperatures below freezing for a prolonged period of time. While it can affect many parts of your body, fingers, toes, and face and nose are the most susceptible to frostbite.

gloves and frostbite
glove and frostbite

As a person’s body cools off, the body shunts circulation to the core. It does this to supply the internal organs and brain with warm blood to keep the core temperature up. When this happens, the blood vessels in your arms and legs constrict reducing the circulation into the fingers and toes.

Symptoms of frostbite include coldness and pain to the area affected. As the frostbite continues tingling and numbness occur. As the cold progresses, damage to the skin begins. If not addressed people experience damage to the point of needing debridement (removal of necrotic or dead skin) or even amputation.

Hypothermia is when you lose body heat faster than you replenish it

cold and shivering
cold and shivering

Hypothermia occurs after prolonged exposure to the cold. It is when you lose body heat faster than you can replace it.

Our natural body temperature hovers around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia begins as the body’s core temperature lowers past 95 degrees.

As hypothermia begins, your body starts to shiver. This is a way that the body tries to warm itself by contracting muscles to produce heat.

Other symptoms include slurred speech, lack of coordination, sleepiness, slower breathing, slower pulse, confusion, and eventual loss of consciousness.

Snow shelters as an alternative to a 4-season tent

snow shelter or igloo
snow shelter or igloo

For the most part, tents are the habitat of choice when out winter camping. However, there are times when a snow shelter is appropriate and a better option than a tent. Let’s see.

Tents are easy to set up, keep your equipment dry, and can be placed anywhere. However, tents are expensive and noisy in the wind.

Snow shelters are free, quiet and warm. The temperature in a tent can raise to even 40 degrees. However, shelters take time to build, and require snow, lots of snow.

Depending on your experience level and how much time and energy you have, snow shelters are a safe and fun alternative.

How to dress when winter backpacking

Unlike summer backpacking, winter brings different challenges. While you can only remove so much clothing in the summer, the winter is a game of thermal optimization.

During winter trips, adding and removing layers throughout the day depending on the conditions becomes a challenge. Also, when packing it in for the night, clothes need to provide protection as your body temperature lowers and the tent cools through the night.

18 Must Wear Cold Weather Hiking Clothes

A number of choices become apparent depending on the weather conditions. Here is a list of clothing items starting from the head and going down to the toes.

dressed for winter
dressed for winter
  1. Winter hat: A good wool or fleece hat helps to keep the heat in. It is also your first line of defense then eliminating heat – taking it off provides quick relief.
  2. Waterproof winter hat: We recommend carrying a waterproof hat or have a waterproof hood on your jacket.
  3. Balaclava: Taking off and putting on the balaclava helps regulate your temperature.
  4. Polypropylene underlayer: This helps to keep moisture from building up against your body. Which means you stay warmer.
  5. Long sleeve wicking shirt: like the underlayer, this wicks sweat away from your body. It also provides some loft as it is not as tight as the underlayer.
  6. Fleece or wool sweater: Here is where the magic begins. A good fleece or wool sweater provides warmth as the fibers allow for body heat to accumulate and stay near the body. The sweater also allows humid air to escape.
  7. Waterproof/ weatherproof parka jacket with hood: Nothing is more valuable than a good breathable waterproof or resistant jacket. I was caught without one and nearly froze to death (maybe a pun-but I got super chilled)
  8. Raingear: Even when you are out just for a simple winter day hike, it is good to have raingear that you can put on at a moment’s notice. Especially when you are in the transition parts of the seasons where the temps are above freezing most of the day.
  9. Glove liners: As the temperature drops, glove liners provide extra protection. They are useful when needing hand dexterity but you don’t want to have your fingers exposed.
  10. Mittens or gloves: To cover your hands. Just remember to get the appropriate glove for the trip. Many ski gloves aren’t breathable so they are not always the best thing to hike with. A good waterproof and breathable fabric helps keep your fingers warm without too much sweat accumulating.
  11. Waterproof glove coverings: These are for those extra cold days where you just need more protection from the extremely low temperatures.
  12. Polypropylene underwear layer: To the bottoms. Just like our tops, we start with a wicking underlayer. This provides initial protection and keeps moisture from accumulating against our skin.
  13. Long wicking pants: These continue the wicking action but also provide some loft or air to accumulate between the inner and outer layer providing some warmth.
  14. Fleece or wool pants: The magic stage. Wool is known for its warmth on wet days. Continue the tradition and get some nice wool or fleece pants to stay warm.
  15. Waterproof/ weatherproof pants or shell: To protect from wind, snow, and rain. Just make sure that they fit properly. I struggle with this as I am short for my weight : ). A well-fitting pair of pants should reach your ankles but not further. Also, the pants should stay above your ankles preventing snow from entering your boots.
  16. Long wool or synthetic socks (bring extras): A good pair of socks protects from frostbite. If you have circulation problems, spend the extra money on a good pair of socks.
  17. Gaiters: In deep snow or when snowshoeing a pair of gaiters is a must. They are your initial protection from the snow.
  18. Waterproof hiking boots: These are a must in winter conditions. Get a good pair, make sure they fit well and try them out several times before you venture off for a weeklong trip.

Remember that the name of the game for winter backpacking is starting cool and adjusting on the fly. When you start out, your body temperature is a bit cool. So, we recommend that you wear just enough clothes to get started. As your body heats up, you can take off layers and as the day progresses and the sun loses some of its shine then add clothing back on.

Stay safe, and remember, winter hiking is so much better than summer hiking. But that is a story for another day.