What decides the season rating on a tent……?

Just a few musings really in follow up to my last post when I tested out the Lightwave T10. A lot of the responses to the post were centered around the statement that the T10 is a 4 season tent. How do you decide the season rating for a tent? Do we rely on the manufacturers ratings, a design concept (tunnel vs geodesic vs single pole), materials of construction or some other criteria?

For sleeping bags, there has been a similar question posed but I think that there is a more or less established standard now. I dont think there is one for tents. So, how do we rate our tents for season capability? Experience counts for a lot but that is often retrospective after the tent is bought and quite often when you are committed in the great outdoors.

A more fundamental question might have to be answered first which is the seasons themselves. Do we rate tents against UK seasons? Do we rate tents against US conditions and so forth? Do we use the normal 1 -4 range, or the 1 – 4 range with half stops such as Henry Shires uses (3, 3+ etc) or do we use the slightly more subjective 1 – 5 range?

An excerpt from Wikipedia gives the following guidelines for season ratings:

A tent required only for summer use may be very different from one to be used in the depths of winter. Manufacturers label tents as one-season, two/three-season, three/four season, four season, etc. A one-season tent is generally for summer use only, and may only be capable of coping with light showers. A three-season tent is for spring/summer/autumn and should be capable of withstanding fairly heavy rain, or very light snow. A four-season tent should be suitable for winter camping in all but the most extreme conditions; an expedition tent (for mountain conditions) should be strong enough to cope with heavy snow, strong winds, as well as heavy rain. Some tents are sold, quite cheaply, as festival tents; these may be suitable only for camping in dry weather, and may not even be showerproof.

The above “expedition” category would be alternatively classified as a 5 season tent and in fact Lightwave themselves use this rating.

Based on the above rating system, which is a fairly standard approach, this would tend to suggest that most backpacking tents fall into either the 3 or 4 season category. But, back to the question of the seasons themselves, a Scottish winter is much harsher than a Cornwall winter is it not and so on? So if we buy a 4 season tent are we buying one capable of Scandinavian conditions or just a bit of snow, cold and wind?

I dont aim to get a definitive answer in this post but just to pose and discuss the actual question, if that makes sense. For what its worth I think we can only use the season ratings as a guideline and so back to my original point that experience actually defines the performance reality. Again though, a small caveat to consider is whether mere “survival” in a tent constitutes a season rating or whether a more comfortable existence is a better measure. Also one person’s experience is often quite different to another’s. I am really interested to see what everyone’s perception and thoughts are on this subject and hence I am really just asking the question.

So, what do you think…? What season rating system do you use, what are your perceptions on ratings and different manufacturers claims and also how do you define the seasons themselves?


About Saddlebags and Backpacks - a brewer's outdoor adventures

I am a keen hiker, camper, cyclist and general all round gear addict..... I also manage to be a professional brewer in my non-spare time :->
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12 Responses to What decides the season rating on a tent……?

  1. For me personally, there’s no grey area about it. That Wiki description pretty much hit the nail on the head.

    However, it’s always worth bearing in mind that some tents not noted or deemed to be 4 season may well in fact handle some conditions extremely well, even if it’s not ideal. For example the Laser Competition. I’ve had that up in the heights of winter on high exposed pitches in storm force winds. Wouldn’t recommend it by any means. But the tent lived to see the next morning as well as me inside 😉

    There was a slight kink in the main pole and some friction burns on the flysheet where the rain hood overlaps – but nothing too bad. Heck, I carried on using the tent for a couple of years after that. But I think what made it stand was how it could flex and move with the winds – it soaked up the energy like a sponge. Who knows? A geodesic may have suffered a broken pole due to it’s rigid design.

    I think examples like that, show it can be a grey area labelling tents by seasonal use. You may get a calm winters night with clear skies, but the average Joe Shmoe may think a 2 season tent won’t be suitable. It would of course cause the conditions are fine.

    Personal preference comes into it, too. I can happily sleep out a storm in a tent flapping like a plastic bag in the wind. Others can’t. So, a more rigid structure is suitable to them but I’ll happily compromise and go for something lighter but not ideal etc.

    Even so, it’s better to be safe than sorry. No tent is bombproof. Just some more than others whcih is dictated by their design and materials, pole diameter etc. So I think the season rating of tents is fine as it is basically. 🙂

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Good point about the Laser Comp. Its touted as a 3 season tent but I too have had it in really nasty exposed pitches. So I reckon its at least a 3+ rating with a possibility of 4 season with care.

      The point about the geodesic versus tunnel vs hoop vs dome thing is another huge talking subject on its own as well you know 😀 The thing about the tent flexing with the wind or trying to stand up to it is a design philosophy that we could spend ages talking about. Back to the review on the T10, I think I am right that the apparent “flex” in the pitch characteristics are purposeful to stop catastrophic failure but am happy to be corrected on that score!

      I also think that you are right re the conditions dictating tent use and being slightly flexible with season ratings. Maybe tent manufacturers should be more descriptive in their write up of a tent’s capabilities. Hilleberg are pretty good at this, for example, saying that the Akto is good for winter (4 season) but that its not so much of an exposed, above the treeline tent as some of their other shelters, etc.

  2. Agree mate. Totally. I avoided the mention of tunnel v hoop v dome 😉 That could easily transpire into a heated argument for some. That’s why I was interested in your review on the T10 you see. It looked a taught pitch. I can see it being used and handling strong winds quite easily. Perhaps that’s why they say it’s a 4 season? But I’d throw snow into that category too. And it’s worth considering it may well stand up for 4 season conditions but for how long??

    My example on the LC is pretty fitting in that respect. It stood. But it came away with some harm. So, on reflection it’s best to say it’s a 2 season tent with some capability to handle a bit more in dire conditions.

    Personally, what I’d like to see on the 4 and 5 season ratings is what load they can carry (ie snow) in weight. And what wind speeds to expect to be comfortable in the tent. At the moment it’s all to vague and to some out there very confusing.

    Above the tree line? Pah, you can get funnelled winds and gusts roaring down a valley at a low level camp. Such descriptions mean nothing in the big scheme of things. So, I agree with you whole heartedly mate.

    And note I was careful to avoid the varying designs v each other again 😉 Simply because all have their merits and there’s no real definitive answer though it has to be said, over time and regular use in serious weather – a geodesic is the way to go. But even that depends on other factors eh? lol 😉

    • backpackbrewer says:

      It was a very taut pitch on the T10 and I reckon it could take harsh weather although an exposed pitch in heavy conditions is another matter entirely. Like I said, almost a shame my trip didnt have atrocious conditions for at least one night (not that I really hope for that mind 🙂 )

      Its definitely confusing and I dont think that there is enough testing and qualification of the statements made by some manufacturers. I think there are one or two manufacturers who test their tents in wind but the results arent always published clearly or made reference to on the sales descriptions.

      I suppose if I was to be cynical I would look at any tent with a clainmed season rating and drop that down by at least half (maybe even one whole season) before use and confirmation of abilities.

      • Unfortunately, wind tunnel testing costs a lot of money. So, some companies don’t bother. Well, they do for expedition tents but for us mere backpackers it’s a different ball game mate. They just test em outdoors via their own teams, sponsored athletes and so on.

        You’ll often find a tent that’s due for launch a year or so down the line is already being put to test out on the hills way before then. They’ll go on group camps and such like and see how the gear performs before making tweaks and what have you.

        It’s an interesting process I’ve found but surprisingly simple in the main.

        • backpackbrewer says:

          wind tunnels are expensive and they generally blow in one direction only. The real nasty storms I have been in are the ones when you get gusts and lulls and also multidirectional wind! Try simulating that in a wind tunnel ! 🙂 I also seem to remember Terra Nova used to strap their mountain tents to the top of a landrover and then drive it at 40+mph!

          Testing is good as long as the results are meaningful and also published. If the testing is done by “joe public” and the results posted on the internet then thats halfway to getting good informationon the tent’s performance

  3. I think location is a key. In the Scottish Highlands, where I do most of my camping, very strong winds and heavy rain are as likely in August as December. However heavy snow is only likely between October and April (though there was a heavy snowfall on the Cairngorm Plateau at the end of August last year). I think of a winter tent as one that will stand up to heavy snow (and the Akto, much as I like it, isn’t actually that good here – no single pole tent is, as the snow flattens the ends). All other tents are 3-season tents. If you mostly camp in southern England your view is likely to be different!

    Where the tents are made can affect the maker’s seasons rating too. Hilleberg are of course Swedish and make their tents for Scandinavian conditions, which even in summer can be pretty stormy. Much camping takes place above timberline too. In many areas of the USA, especially California and the Southwest, summer camping means mostly sunny weather and little if any rain. Tents designed for those conditions don’t need the storm worthy features of those designed for Scandinavia.

    I think a more useful distinction is between tents designed for sheltered sites and those designed for storms. In the USA companies used to talk about forest tents and mountain tents.

    • backpackbrewer says:

      Thats a really interesting point you make about some manufacturers saying whether a tent can be classed as a forest tent or a mountain tent. Hilleberg definitely make descriptive distinctions between their tents and do talk about abilities not exclusively about seasons per se.

      Maybe its time for a few more descriptions (with the vague hope that the tents have actually been tested in the consditions for which they are supposedly designed for). Maybe I am doing tent manuafcturers a diservice and that they do actually subbstantiate claims for tent abilities during the design and testing phases of pre and post preoduction models?

      For now I guess the internet is the best source of information for tent performance to kind of “calibrate” claims against actual performance. Of course that can be fraught if there is only one review of a tent by one person and I know that prevailing conditions during a single test can slew the overall opinion. For example, I could say that a tent was fabulous and could handle winter conditions if I took it out in december on top of snowdon and that was a particularily mild day/night

      Thats why I like to get as many opinions about tents (and other kit) before committing to purchase if i can

      • More descriptions would be useful. “Winter conditions” can mean just heavy snow or snow plus strong winds. A tent that’s fine for the first may not be much use for the second. Companies could say which they mean. I camped on the Cairngorm Plateau several weeks ago. There was no snow and only a gentle breeze so I learnt nothing about the winter capabilities of the shelter I used. Last week I used the same shelter at much lower levels in the NW Highlands. There were strong winds and two days of rain. I now know the shelter is fine in those conditions. I still haven’t used it in snow.

        I think getting several opinions is always worthwhile, especially for major items like tents. Every tester and user has their own preferences.

        • backpackbrewer says:

          completely agree Chris and thats why I do like and to a certain extent rely on people who thoroughly test out shelters (ie 3rd party individuals). Also the more experience a reviewer has in the use of shelters and in varying conditions, the more credence I can place on their opinion. Not trying to butter you up but obviously I will listen hard to information you impart about any shelter you have used precisely because you have got a vast amount of experience in using and abusing shelters over a long period of time and in varying conditions.

          • Thanks. I do always try and test tents in the conditions the makers say they are designed for – and say if that’s not possible (no snow usually). Many years ago I tested a “four-seasons” tent and found it hopeless in snow though it was fine otherwise. The company never spoke to me again!

          • backpackbrewer says:

            Ahhh, but at least you were honest in describing the pros and cons of the tent. Tent manufacturers should be prepared for fair and justified critical analysis of their kit otherwise its like marking your own homework….

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