Outside magazine, August 1995
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.
Kelty Quattro 2 Mountaineer
L.L. Bean #2 Geodesic Backcountry
Sierra Designs Night Watch
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
Douglas Gantenbein frequently reviews camping gear for Outside.