Can you use a 3-season tent in winter conditions? Here’s what you need to know.
Will a 3-season tent work in Pacific Northwest Winters?
The short answer is yes. I’m not going to do a detailed review of particular tents, but I want to mention a few models that I see often on our trips. I’ll also discuss a few pros and cons of using 3-season tents in the Pacific Northwest winter conditions.
Some tents are definitely better than others. The ones that are too heavy or unable to bear snow or unable to stand in high winds will not be mentioned.
3-Season Tent Examples
Here are three of the better examples, used by winter backpackers in our group:
These tents are lightweight and packable. They shed snow and withstand wind well.
The wind is an important consideration because stronger winds are more frequent in winter. The wind passes through 3-season tents more easily than 4-season tents making the tents colder inside. Sometimes drifting snow will pass through the mosquito-netting too. These problems make 3-season tents less comfortable. Otherwise, in calm weather, the experience of being in one is very similar to being in a 4-season tent.
No one wants to watch you suffer. Please read the information shared here before coming on one of our winter backpacking trips. Snowshoeing in deep snow for miles while ascending thousands of feet to a ridge or summit can be demanding and strenuous, but being comfortable in the cold and staying warm does not require toughness, rather it is about bringing the appropriate gear and knowing how to use it.
If you are an experienced 3-season backpacker, realize that what you know about common gear, such as stoves, hydration systems, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, and tents, will be different from what you need to know for winter conditions.
Know the risks
When ever you hike into the backcountry you expose yourself to dangers and risks, such as avalanches caused by snow, mud, or rock slides. There are hunters, falling rocks, falling trees, tree wells, and the risk of slipping off ledges, falling through snow or ice, suffering from hypothermia, snow blindness, frost bite, severe sun burns, stove accidents, etc.
Know the risks when you decide to go winter backpacking. Be prepared and bring what you need. Basic tips for staying warm and knowing what gear to bring are explained below. This is not a comprehensive discussion of winter backpacking or backcountry safety, but it does contain important things that you MUST know before going.
Pacific Northwest winter weather is mild with temperatures usually between 20 to 35ºF for most backpacking trips between 3,000 and 7,000 feet of elevation. However, during the winter months, wind speeds increase significantly and trip planning needs to include clothing for wind protection to prevent discomfort, hypothermia, and even frostbite.
There is a thin line of protection between being a happy winter camper and being miserable and at risk. Always plan your kit so that you are fully protected and never cold for any significant length of time.
When planning a trip, bear in mind that a forecast of 10–25mph wind can fail to represent wind speed in specific terrain conditions, such as the crest of ridges or narrow saddles and valleys, where the wind can increase significantly. The Mountain Forecast website provides wind speed data for select elevations.
Before buying winter backpacking gear, here are a few tips. My suggestions are mainly agnostic with regard to brand names. My purpose is just to explain what to look for and share buying tips. These are the things to do and know before you spend your money putting together a winter backpacking kit.
With the right winter backpacking gear, you can be warm, dry, and comfortable snowshoeing or hanging around your camp in the snow.
These tips just concern winter gear basics and are not a full gear list for winter backpacking.
Keeping your feet warm in PNW winter doesn’t require heavy Mukluks. Your 3-season boots might even work, but only if they are loose enough to allow for warmer socks and still have plenty of circulation. I usually use thin liner socks with heavy outer wool socks. If your socks create a tight boot fit, then your feet will be cold and you are better off getting another pair of boots for winter use. Circulation is the key to warmth. If you buy boots for winter, be sure to try them on wearing liner socks and thick wool outer socks (the thicker the better). Even with both pairs of socks on, the boots should not be tight. Look for boots that are waterproof, but breathe, and sturdy enough to use with snowshoes.
If you want to use your summer boots, but the fit is tight, try relacing them, starting about half way up. How you lace your boots is very important for correct winter fit. Even with boots made for wide feet you may need to skip the first bottom eye-rings to get the perfect loose winter fit. More here: https://winterbackpacking.com/how-to-keep-your-feet-warm/
Three truths to help keep your feet blissfully warm in Pacific Northwest winter conditions.
Truth 1: Circulation equals warmth.
Make sure your boots fit correctly. Not too loose or too tight. If your boots are too tight, blood circulation will be reduced causing your feet to become cold, especially when you are not moving. This often happens when hikers use their three-season hiking boots with thicker wool socks or layer socks with sock liners.
There are a lot of types of snowshoes, including “racing” snowshoes. I’m going keep this simple and put snowshoes into three terrain categories to cut right to what matters (the differences that can save your life):
Use the right snowshoes for the terrain.
There are snowshoes for flat terrain, rolling terrain, and mountain terrain. For alpine terrain here in the Pacific Northwest, I use snowshoes designed for mountain terrain. How are mountain terrain snowshoes different?
Flat terrain snowshoes provide support but have little traction on the underside. This allows you to go faster on flat terrain but making them a potential high-speed death sled on mountains. Rolling terrain snowshoes have more traction, but only mountain terrain snowshoes have the added traction plus pop-up heel lifts that give your calves a break on steep terrain. Continue reading “Snowshoe tips”
It is always a good idea to trim off unnecessary weight, but sometimes there are safety considerations or just simple pleasures and preferences that make you want to hang on to some gear choices. Here are two of mine.
Most of my gear falls in the light to ultra-light category. This is important especially in the winter because sleeping gear and warm clothes add to the weight. But I have a few not-so-ultra-light exceptions, some of which I’m going to discuss in this post: my hard-shell bear-proof food canister and my extra sleeping pad. Continue reading “Ultra-light Backpacking in Winter Conditions”