Tents for Three Seasons--and Then Some

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1995

Tents for Three Seasons--and Then Some

No one shelter does it all, but the best take you from summer to winterish conditions
By Douglas Gantenbein

I have a friend who has a jacket, a backpack, and a collection of widgets for every outdoor occasion. A three-day camping trip in the Cascades demands one ensemble; four days on snow-capped Rainier, another. For weekends spent on the coast, to my amazement, he shows up with different gear still. The lone exception to this equipment rollout: Wherever we go, he happily pitches the same tent.

It's not that he doesn't have options--there are four-season tents, three-season tents, summer-only tents, and special tents for bike touring. But more and more specialization has not been the trend lately. Instead, tent makers have been expanding the capabilities of their most versatile designs. Such tents are as airy as warm-weather shelters but button up nearly as tight for winter as expedition versions. Logically, weights and prices for these tents fall somewhere in between those of their polarized siblings. Also logical, though less than lyrical, is the name they've been loosely given: three-season-plus tents.

What makes a three-season-plus tent different is hard to pinpoint; often it's a sum of smaller factors. Start with design: Most models have the now-familiar look of the hybrid-dome, which is basically a geodesic that's been elongated at one end to create an efficient, rectangular layout. You'll sacrifice some rigidity for a shelter that's lighter and more packable, with more usable floor space. The few dedicated domes among the three-season-plus tents, however, withstand high winds better, thanks to their symmetrical layout and more poles.

Now look at the details of the canopy, fly, and frame. The canopy's job is to provide a modicum of protection against the elements while remaining breathable. Look for three-season-plus tents that offer plenty of mesh--at the door, windows, and roof--but that can jump from summer to winter by covering up that mesh with zip-in panels of ripstop fabric. The one meshless part of the canopy is the waterproof, coated-nylon floor. Much has been made of "bathtub" floor construction, which pulls the floor-to-wall seam off the ground for better weatherproofing, but I prefer a perimeter-stitched floor, which will lie flatter and thus offer more usable space. Most good tents have their seams sealed at the factory anyway.

The fly is a tent's true armor. Some offer expedition-tent coverage--that is, the fly extends nearly to the ground--while others are cut shorter for better ventilation. To me, the size of the vestibule, that useful porch created by the extension of the fly beyond the tent door, is nearly as important as the size of the tent itself. The more packs, boots, dogs, and whatnot the vestibule can accommodate, the more room there is inside for me. Last, there's material. Nylon and polyester, both of which come in taffeta and ripstop versions, can each be made waterproof, but polyester won't sag as much under snow and, according to manufacturers, does the best job of resisting the sun's fabric-eating ultraviolet rays. Unfortunately, polyester is more expensive, and more of a rarity.

Most good tents--and all of those I reviewed--now come with strong, lightweight, 7000-series aluminum poles, although if you want the best, look for the Easton brand name. The company's 7075-T9 series is superior in strength and flexibility and is wrapped around some very durable shock-cording. Still, when you're talking frames you're mostly talking ease of setup. Two rules of thumb: Time spent setting up a tent is directly related to the number of poles it requires. And tents whose poles must be threaded through sleeves may be more stable than those whose canopies clip to their frames, but they're generally harder to pitch. That said, almost all three-season-plus tents use pole sleeves.

Finally, consider the smaller touches. Can the fly be tightened or loosened in the name of tautness? Inside, are there enough mesh pockets? Is there room for two of you? Three? Your stuff? The only way to find out is to pitch it and crawl inside with your usual number of tentmates and gear.

To find the best three-season-plus tents, I did a lot of pitching and crawling in the wet environs of western Washington. Seven tents, ranging in price from $199 to $415, made my short list.

Eureka Summit
The new modified-dome Summit seems too good to be true. It's light (six pounds, eight ounces), roomy (at 40 square feet it will squeeze in three), and relatively inexpensive ($270). It's also sturdy: The three 7000-series poles hold up a bombproof ripstop polyester fly that also forms a best-of-test vestibule, with enough room inside to kneel and lace up your boots. In ugly weather its turtlelike profile slices wind, and when it's warm, ripstop panels zip away from a mesh rear window and roof panel. Unfortunately, the fly doesn't completely cover the rear window, creating an opening for wind-driven rain and snow.

Kelty Quattro 2 Mountaineer
With the Quattro (seven pounds, eight ounces; $300) Kelty has taken a T-shirt-and-overcoat approach to all-season camping. The canopy walls are mostly mesh, making this tent an excellent choice in warm weather. Because it lacks zip-in ripstop panels, however, you have to rely on the nylon taffeta expedition fly--an optional item that will run you another hundred bucks. Unlike the standard fly, it completely covers the canopy and has a built-in vestibule, though with it on the Quattro is still too drafty to be considered a winter tent. On the other hand, its 47-square-foot interior can sleep three, and the dome structure is quite rigid.

L.L. Bean #2 Geodesic Backcountry
Priced at $199, this two-person tent is another model that gives a big return on a small investment. Like the name says, it's a dome, so it's strong in a big blow and sheds water nicely. It also has a largish, 42-square-foot interior, a big rear window with a zip-in ripstop cover, and a mesh roof panel. Unfortunately, the Geodesic was a bigger burden (nine pounds, two ounces) than the other tents, and that's not counting the optional vestibule (one pound, 15 ounces; $55). Since the vestibule is small and difficult to erect, I'd recommend the Geodesic, sans optional portal, to a pair of budget-minded campers.

REI GeoDome
Like the other two traditional domes in this review, the $275 GeoDome is heavy enough (eight pounds, 12 ounces) to pull hard on your pack straps, especially when you add the optional vestibule (one pound, 12 ounces; $55). But it was my favorite dome, thanks mostly to small details. It's the only tent in the review with two full-size doors, for both superior ventilation and easy access. It has four interior gear pockets--more than most tents--plus tensioning straps that keep the fly snug. And though the vestibule is difficult to set up, it's spacious (12 square feet) and well designed, with flaps along the edge to keep drifting snow out and a sealable duct for added ventilation.

Sierra Designs Night Watch
Perhaps more than any other tent, the Night Watch ($325) is truest to the three-season-plus concept: It's lightweight, well ventilated, and hearty. The five-pound hybrid dome is framed with three Easton poles, and the pitched roof sheds snow well. Its 37 square feet of floor space is roomy enough for two plus gear, and a side door and a mesh roof panel, complete with zip-in ripstop material, keep you from feeling too shut in. About that side-mounted door: It ensures that the person sleeping next to it will be disturbed when his tentmate wants out. The silver lining is that the full length of that side can become a narrow vestibule, so packs and boots can be tucked away from the entrance. The Night Watch is also distinguished by its use of pole clips instead of sleeves; what you lose in structural strength, you gain in ease of setup.

The North Face Star Ship Extreme

For your $415, the hybrid-dome Star Ship Extreme gives you room to roll and roam. It's big enough for three--over 42 square feet--but still impressively light, at a shade under seven and a half pounds. Aside from the relatively flat roof, which does not shed snow well, this tent is loaded for bear: It has three Easton poles, ripstop nylon covers for the mesh at front and back, and hearty pole sleeves. In good weather, the big door gives a feeling of airiness, and the tall stance almost begs for an indoor game of Hacky Sack.

Wild Country North Star
The North Star (seven pounds, $325) specializes in high-country travel for two. Its tapered, bathtub-style floor is snug at 31 square feet--really too snug for anyone who's taller than about six feet--but that small patch of nylon can fit on tight alpine ledges or snow platforms. With only three poles, the hybrid dome sets up easily, and I liked the cheery interior created by the yellow and gray walls. What I didn't like--a vestibule that dumps rainwater inside when opened, a nonadjustable fly, and a small rear window with no zip-in panel--I could certainly live with, especially since the North Star can be used nearly year-round.

Douglas Gantenbein frequently reviews camping gear for Outside.

See also:

Essentials: Protect That Shelter

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