Does a 4-season tent truly exist?
In outdoor equipment terminology, a 3-season tent is one which is suitable for the seasons of spring, summer and autumn, while a 4-season tent is suitable for all 4 seasons of the year, including winter or extreme conditions. Winter conditions are harsh. So are conditions on the exposed ridge of a mountain, or having to spend extended periods being self-reliant in a remote area. When people think of a 4-season tent, they are visualizing a design which prioritizes durability and weather resistance.
The mythological 4-season tent
It seems to me that most 4-season tents are actually only 4th-season tents. The same design characteristics which make them so good in cold/remote/high places make them much less suitable for the other 3 seasons. In milder conditions, one can give up some of the tank-like protection and enjoy carrying lesser weight. 3-season tents should also have good ventilation for hot summer conditions while still keeping out the swarming insects that enjoy being out together with us.
Outdoor enthusiasts in temperate climates compromise by having one tent for general usage, and another specifically for harsher conditions. This is a tough sell for mountaineers in Singapore and other tropical climates. It does not make financial sense to buy a 4-season tent only to use it for an expedition for 3-4 weeks a year. In addition, the moist and humid conditions here causes the material used in the waterproof lining on most tents to degrade irreversibly, sometimes in less than 2 years.
Is it possible to find a tent that is versatile enough to handle all 4 seasons? Is there such a thing as a true 4-season tent, or does it exist in myth and song only?
Criteria for true 4-season tents
This hypothetical tent would need to have durability and weather resistance of a 4th season tent:
good tear strength of the flysheet to withstand storm winds (minimum 20D ripstop nylon)
highly puncture-resistant and abrasion-resistant floor for when camping on rocky ground (minimum 40D nylon)
strong poles to hold up to heavy snow loading (minimum 9mm)
setup/teardown by pitching outer first (crucial in heavy rain or bad weather)
At the same time, this tent should also have the breathability of a 3-season tent:
good ventilation and airflow to prevent condensation overnight (2 or more vents)
mesh fabric as an insect barrier (up to 40% of inner tent surface area) which serves to improve ventilation as well
The tent should allow the user to vary the mesh coverage and ventilation to an extent which makes it warm enough for winter, yet cool enough for summer. To me, the ability to vary breathability is a critical design feature if a tent is to claim to be truly 4-season.
Lastly, since we want to use this tent for as many trips as possible of varying duration, it should be:
comfortable to sit in (minimum 100cm inner tent height)
relatively lightweight (less than 3.5kg for a 2-person tent)
silnylon is preferred as a waterproof lining instead of polyurethane (PU) as silnylon does not degrade in Singapore’s conditions
I have limited this search to only 2-person tents as this is the most popular configuration. Tunnel tents are excluded due to their limited venting options. Single-wall tents are also excluded as they generally do not allow you to improve airflow if there is also severe precipitation (one exception is the Black Diamond Ahwahnee). After evaluating the specs of more than 1000 tent models from close to a hundred tent manufacturers, there are only a handful of tents on the market today that meet all the key criteria.
Shortlist of "true" 4-season tents
Most spacious: Exped Orion 2 Extreme
Exped is a Swiss outdoor equipment manufacturer. The Orion 2 Extreme’s inner and outer tent can be setup either together or separately. 2x 9mm non-crossing poles from front to back, while a full length ridge pole (also 9mm) extends to the floor on either side. 40D nylon ripstop coated with silicon (single side) is used for the flysheet and 70D nylon of 10000mm hydrostatic head is used for the floor. Inner tent is a lofty 130cm high. Depending on how much of the 2 large doors you choose to leave open, mesh coverage ranges from 20-40%. Weight 3.2kg, MSRP S$1200 / EUR780.
Most bomber: Fjallraven Abisko Dome 2
Better known for their hipster backpacks. The Abisko Dome 2 pitches outer first. 3x 9.6mm poles are used, which can even be doubled for extra strength to withstand extreme conditions. Flysheet is 20D nylon ripstop coated with silcone on both sides. Floor is 40D nylon ripstop with headstatic head 4000mm. Inner tent is only 100cm high so may not be suitable for very tall people. 2 large vents in the roof can be covered in bad weather. The 2 large doors are also fully mesh-lined. This gives the tent a large range of ventilation options (ranging from 0% to 50%). Weight 3.16kg, MSRP S$1390 / EUR900.
Most breathable: Helsport Reinsfjell Pro 2
Helsport is a Norwegian company specialising in tents and sleeping bags. The Reinsfjell Pro 2 features a very similar construction to the Exped Orion 2 Extreme, in terms of the pole setup and pole diameter (9mm). However, this tent’s flysheet uses a comparatively lighter 40D nylon ripstop coated with silnylon on both sides, vs the Exped which has one side coated with the heavier PU. The floor is 70D nylon with 5000mm hydrostatic head. Inner tent height is 105cm. Variability of airflow is maximized thanks to 2 huge fully mesh-lined doors (0% up to 50% ventilation). Weight 3.0kg, MSRP S$1190 / EUR770.
Most waterproof: Hilleberg Allak 2
One of the big names in tents. The Allak 2’s inner and outer tent can be setup either together or separately. It uses 30D silnylon ripstop for the flysheet that is triple-coated (probably only company in the industry to do so). Floor is 70D nylon with hydrostatic head of 15000mm. 3x 9mm poles extend from floor-to-floor, making it capable of heavy snow and wind loads. The poles can be doubled for extra strength. The 4-season inner tent is 105cm high, and both the large doors can be exposed (allowing 40% mesh) or fully fabric covered. A large roof vent provides additional ventilation. There is option to purchase a 3-season inner tent (100% mesh). Heaviest tent in the lineup at 3.3kg. MSRP: S$1980 / USD1390 (including 3-season inner tent).
Most affordable: Kuiu Storm Star 2
The only non-traditional outdoor brand on the shortlist. Kuiu is a manufacturer from USA specializing in hunting equipment. The Storm Star 2 pitches outer first, using 3x 9.3mm poles as exoskeleton. The fly material is 30D silnylon, and floor is 40D nylon with 5000mm hydrostatic head. The inner tent is 101cm high, and 2 top vents provide optional ventilation. Both the large doors can be exposed (allowing 40% mesh) or fully fabric covered. The lightest tent at 2.66kg. MSRP: S$820 / USD600.
The attentive gear whore will note the absence of some big name expedition tents in the list above which did not meet the criteria e.g. North Face Mountain 25 (too heavy), Mountain Hardwear Trango 2 (poor ventilation). Most 3-season tents also failed to meet the mark e.g. MSR Hubba Hubba NX2 (too much un-coverable mesh area), Nemo Kunai 2P (material of floor too thin).
A “true” 4-season tent is possible if the design elements of a 4th season tent are paired with the ability to vary breathability. This is achieved either by having openings covered by both mesh and fabric, or using different inner tents. Either way, it generally comes at an eye-watering price. I have therefore not tested any of these tents personally (but would be keen to do so!). Even many 3-season tents produced by the big western brands are costly investments.
However, the budding mountaineer is willing to accept some trade-off in performance in exchange for a lower price tag. In a future post, I will evaluate a number of high quality Chinese-branded tents to determine their claim to also reach the tantalising realm of “true” 4-season tents.