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3-Season vs. 4-Season Tents

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 and some of the best 4-season options available. In context, I’ll be referring to small and light tents for backpacking rather than tents that are used for basecamps and long stays in one location.

3-Season Tent Examples

Here are three of the better examples, used by winter backpackers in our group:

3-season tents snow camping
3-season tents by REI Half Dome (left), North Face Stormbreak 1 (middle) and Big Agnes Fly Creek (right) that have withstood 20–25mph winds and snow on our trips.

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 similar to being in a 4-season tent.

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Preparing for Winter Winds

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.

winter winds average speeds in Washington State
If you are use to three-season backpacking, you may be unfamiliar with the increased wind speeds of winter. Planning for the cold is not enough. You need to factor in wind as well to be safe.

Wind Forecasts

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.

intense mountain winds
The forecast (February 9, 2019) included 10–25mph winds, but on this ridge we had trouble walking, indicating that the wind speed was around 40mph. The temperatures were 7–10ºF at 5000ft, making the wind chill probably –15ºF. Without the right clothing, this would place us close to the edge of frostbite danger.