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How to Choose the Best 4 Season Tent

Four-season tents. From front to back: Black Diamond Awhahnee  Eldorado  Fitzroy  Firstlight  Marmot  Alpinist (right)  and Mountain Hardwear EV2 (left). Seven double wall tents lie in the rear.
By Chris McNamara, Ian Nicholson, and Max Neale
Wednesday July 27, 2016


We reviewed both single and double walled tents. Single walled shelters have one layer of wind and water resistant or waterproof fabric and are supported by poles either inside or outside of the fabric. Double wall tents here have three parts: a inner tent made of water resistant, breathable solid nylon, an outer tent (waterproof rain fly) and poles.

Single Wall vs. Double Wall


Choosing between a single and double wall tent is critical decision. In general, we prefer double wall tents because they put two layers of fabric between you and elements. This creates a more comfortable space. The inner tent provides condensation-limiting breathability while the outer tent provides weather protection. The inner tent is water repellant and breathable; it lets vapor pass through but prevents condensed water from falling on you. Double wall tents are also stronger, more durable and warmer. When the fly wears out you can replace it, so with proper care a double wall tent can last for many years of use.

At some point your desired adventure crosses a threshold where saving weight is more important than comfort, space and durability. This is where single wall tents excel. One wall weighs less than two and is generally faster and easier to set up. Single wall tents usually have smaller footprints that allow them to be pitched in tight spaces or small ledges. We favor single wall tents for winter trips of shorter duration where moving fast and light is a top priority, or when the only site available is a small ledge. For everything else we take double wall tents. In the summer, tarps and bivy sacks generally outperform single wall tents.

On extended expeditions especially in harsh  remote destinations  the livability of your tent becomes more important than factors that would have superseded it like weight on shorter alpine trips. Here Vanessa Kiss prepares for a cold night in the Jannu in western Greenland.
On extended expeditions especially in harsh, remote destinations, the livability of your tent becomes more important than factors that would have superseded it like weight on shorter alpine trips. Here Vanessa Kiss prepares for a cold night in the Jannu in western Greenland.

Pole Design


Pole design is the single most important aspect of a tent design. It defines the shelter's strength and influences every feature. There are two classic designs: two poles that cross once in the center and four poles that cross a total of seven times. There are, of course, many other variations on these two designs, some of which are more successful than others. Several factors that make a pole design stronger are the number of pole intersections, the number of clips and material that attach the poles to the tent, and pole material and diameter. In our opinion the highest quality poles are DAC Featherlite NSL Green. The thicker the stronger.

Poles that set up inside the tent do a good job at supporting the walls and are lighter than those that support the tent from outside, but are generally harder to set up and can accidentally puncture the tent wall or floor. These are only found on Black Diamond single wall tents.

The best pole design combines the attributes of a single wall tent (fast and easy to pitch) with the strength and durability of a double wall tent. Hilleberg does this with stunning grace. Both the Tarra and Jannu are a cinch to pitch, incredibly fast to take down and provide incredible protection from the elements.

This product has alternating clips are not only very strong  but can also accept two poles (one facing one way  the other facing the other way). Two poles make the Tarra a hurricane proof fortress.
This product has alternating clips are not only very strong, but can also accept two poles (one facing one way, the other facing the other way). Two poles make the Tarra a hurricane proof fortress.

Outer Tent (rain fly)


The outer tent is a waterproof fabric most often made from polyurethane or silicone treated ripstop nylon or polyester. Outer tents shedding rain, snow, ice and wind. Single wall tents have one layer of fabric, which is more often than not a three-layer waterproof-breathable material. In double wall tents, the outer tent adds stability and strength by attaching to the inner tent and being guyed out to the ground. All double wall tents have a vestibule, or porch as they say in the UK. Vestibules provide a dry space for entry/exit, gear storage and cooking. Most vestibules are made of the same material as the outer tent.

Ventilation


As we breathe we release warm, humid air. When this air rises and hits the much colder tent wall, it condenses and freezes, sticking to the tent wall. After sufficient buildup of frozen condensation, water vapor from your breath will hit the wall, freeze and rain back down upon you like snow. This scenario, often too common when camping in cold climes, can be uncomfortable, make your sleeping bag wet and the tent heavier with accumulated moisture. The ability for a tent to properly ventilate requires enough airflow to carry water vapor out of the tent before it condenses on the tent walls. We have found that vents are more effective than breatheable fabrics at reducing condensation. The more vents the better. The Mountain Hardwear EV2, the best ventilating single wall tent, uses four small vents to circulate air. The Hilleberg Tarra and Jannu, the best venting double wall tents, each has a large port in the center of the roof.

The Tarra and Jannu share a large top vent. (The Jannu is shown here.) Note the webbing strip that reinforces the vent and the elasticized toggles that attach the inner tent to the outer tent.
The Tarra and Jannu share a large top vent. (The Jannu is shown here.) Note the webbing strip that reinforces the vent and the elasticized toggles that attach the inner tent to the outer tent.

Features


Features turn a good tent into a great tent but are largely trivial when compared to pole design. Some manufacturers go overboard with too many pockets and unnecessary things like glow-in-the-dark zipper pulls (North Face Mountain 25). We demand well-placed supportive pockets and a good entrance.

Weight


Being too obsessed with weight can have detrimental and uncomfortable consequences. There's no reason for a lightweight tent if you primarily camp out of your car. Conversely, a light tent is the easiest and cheapest way to reduce pack weight. Going light in the mountains is well known to be easier on your body and therefore faster. Reducing a tent's weight, however, reduces strength and durability. The Black Diamond Firstlight, likely the lightest two-person, freestanding four-season tent on the market, sacrifices many things, including comfort and water resistance, for its gaunt three-pound package. The strongest two tents, the Mountain Hardwear Trango 2.1 and Hilleberg Jannu, weigh 9 lb. 14 oz. and 9 lb., respectively.

Guying Out the Tent


Properly guying out a four-season tent is critical to your comfort and the tent's longevity. Spectra guy lines (strong, light, don't absorb water) and camming adjusters are the easiest and best method for tensioning guy lines. On snow or in sand we set tent stakes "deadman" style. To do this attach the guy line into the center of the stake then bury it horizontally in snow or in sand. The line and stake together should make a T, with the stake being the top of the T. Be sure to bury the stake at least a foot down; otherwise it will melt out or pull out. If using rocks, uses big ones! (You can't possibly find one that's too big.) Several companies make high quality snow and sand stakes.

If your tent doesn't come with camming adjusters (most don't) and you don't want to buy some, the Trucker's Hitch is the second easiest method to tension guy lines. Set up as illustrated below. Create the upper loop by using an overhand on a bight or a slipknot. Tie off with a looped half hitch, which is easy to untie and adjust.

This product is super strong. Notice the many guy lines (made of Spectra)  camming adjusters  removable roof vent cover  and how the fly extends to the ground. BOMBER!
This product is super strong. Notice the many guy lines (made of Spectra), camming adjusters, removable roof vent cover, and how the fly extends to the ground. BOMBER!

Chris McNamara at Big Sur  2008
Chris McNamara
About the Author
Chris is the founder of OutdoorGearLab and serves as Editor-in-Chief. Climbing Magazine once computed that three percent of Chris McNamara's life on earth has been spent on the face of El Capitan—an accomplishment that has left friends and family pondering Chris' sanity. He's climbed El Capitan over 70 times and holds nine big wall speed climbing records. In 1998 Chris did the first Girdle Traverse of El Capitan, an epic 75-pitch route that begs the question, "Why?" Outside Magazine has called Chris one of "the world's finest aid climbers." He's the winner of the 1999 Bates Award from the American Alpine Club and founder of the American Safe Climbing Association, a nonprofit group that has replaced over 14,000 dangerous anchor bolts. Chris is also the founder and lead author of the rock climbing guidebooks publisher, SuperTopo. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter or ChrisMcNamara.com. He also has two Lake Tahoe Vacation Rentals here and here.

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