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Tent season numbers, what they mean, and the best of each

An explanation of waterproof ratings, season numbers, and more

REI Co-op Kingdom 4 Tent - $429.00 Saivo - $1675.00 MSR Access 2 Tent - $599.95

REI Co-op Kingdom 4 Tent - $429.00

Saivo - $1675.00

MSR Access 2 Tent - $599.95

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Last time you were shopping for a tent, you may have noticed some confusing numbers like season numbers and waterproof ratings. If you were confused about what any of that meant, we’ve got you covered below.

In short, “season ratings” (one, two, three, four, and five/expedition) take into account the amount of precipitation and the temperature range a specific tent can withstand while still sheltering its occupants in relative comfort. Most tents currently with a three season rating or above have a double wall construction – a tent “body” (the most resilient part that provides the tent’s shape) plus a “fly” (a waterproof shelter that sits over the body, preventing rainwater from leaking in). 

Tent waterproofness is measured in millimeters using the hydrostatic head test. To administer this test a steady stream of water is directed onto the tent: the higher the column of water is, the more pressure it will exert on the tent fabric. In most test centers today, a machine replicates how much downward pressure a column of water would create at increasing heights until moisture becomes visible on the other side. 

A hydrostatic head (HH) of at least 1000mm means a tent will resist light showers. Heavy rains require a 2000mm measurement. Groundsheets in general should have an even higher HH (3000mm) because of the added pressure of your body pushing it down into wet ground.

In the most general sense, tents fall into two categories: family or camping tents, and backpacking tents. Luckily, season and waterproof ratings are calculated the same in both categories.

One– to two–season tents

Wakeman 2-Person Water Resistant Dome Tent - $22.49

Wakeman 2-Person Water Resistant Dome Tent - Red/Gray
Wakeman
target.com
$28.49

Economy and department store tents – or any tent without a season rating – normally fall into the one– to two–season category. I personally wouldn’t recommend taking a one– or two–season tent any farther than your backyard (or to the beach for the day) but I am someone who likes to be prepared for multiple scenarios at any given time – in this instance, weather scenarios.

One-season tents are designed for warm, tropical weather without rain while two-season tents can normally withstand light, misty showers and low winds. Neither offer protection from colder temperatures. A popup tent for use on the beach is an example of a tent that would be considered one-season. A two-season version would be something akin to this Wakeman tent sold at Target.

Most people opt for at least a three-season tent as they are suitable for a greater variety of weather.

Large three-season tents 

Jade Canyon Family Tent – $349.99

Eureka! Jade Canyon X4, 3 Season, 4 Person Camping Tent
Eureka!
amazon.com
$297.46

Some popular, large, camping tents include the REI Kingdom 4 and the Eureka Jade Canyon 4.

Both are three-season tents that provide a roomy living space at your campsite. The Kingdom 4 has a ceiling peak of 75 inches, numerous interior storage pockets, and ample space for four people to hang out. At a little over 18 pounds, this is a heavy tent but, if you’re not carrying it on your back, weight probably isn’t a huge concern.

The Jade Canyon has a seven foot, or 84 inch, ceiling height. Amazon reviewers report it as being easy to set up and quite durable at an affordable price. Both of these tents provide spacious comfort while camping in one spot. 

My favorite three–season tents

Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 3 Person Tent - $499.95

Three–season tents can handle pounding rain, intense extended winds, and some snow. My Big Agness Copper Spur UL survived multiple nights on the Mongolian Steppe with sustained winds of 20 to 30 mph. I actually own three different versions of the Copper Spur: UL-1, UL-3, and the bikepacking version. Backpacking tents are lighter and pack down into stuff sacks making them conducive to carrying in a pack on your person – or on a bicycle. 

Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL 3 Person Tent
Big Agnes
moosejaw.com
$499.95

The ‘UL’ in all instances refers to ultra-light and the copper spur is definitely that. Plus, with its support poles attached to a central hub and pole clips, I find it super easy to set up. Copper Spurs have a 1200mm HH coating on the fly and floor.

The vestibule, even on the bikepacking tent, provides adequate storage space and the mesh panels and vents, ample air flow – except for a couple nights in the Turkmenistan desert in August. On those nights, the only people in my bike touring group who slept well were those who snoozed on the top of the kitchen and medic supply van.

Four-season tents

MSR Access 2 Tent - $599.95

The MSR Access 2 is a lightweight four-season tent suited for ski touring and other snowy excursions. 

MSR Access 2 Tent
MSR
moosejaw.com
$599.95

With a swivel pole hub for central support, the Access 2 holds up well under high winds and substantial snow loads. There are also rainfly vents and multiple guy lines. The two side doors and two vestibules, make the Access a great choice if you plan on sharing your tent with someone else. 

The Access 2 tent floor and fly both have an “Xxtreme Shield” polyurethane coating with the former being 3000mm and the latter, 1200mm.

MSR advertises this tent as “lighter than a mountaineering tent, but warmer than a backpacking tent” which, according to reviewers, holds true.

“Five”-season  or expedition tents

Hilleberg Saivo tent - $1675.00

Saivo
Hilleberg
backcountrygear.com
$1675.00

Expeditions or five-season tents are those made to withstand extreme mountain and snow conditions. Used by climbers, ski mountaineers, and even South Pole expedition teams, the Hilleberg Saivo tent is well suited for adventures in isolated and extreme territories. 

While by no means an inexpensive option, the Saivo offers exceptional durability and stability in high winds and blizzard-like conditions. Like most Hilleberg tents, the Saivo features linked inner and outer tents for simultaneous pitching — unlike many other brands where you pitch the inner tent then attach the outer fly separately. It also has a dome construction with a high snow load capacity, dual entrances and vestibules, and ample space for up to three people and their gear.

Hilleberg manufactures their tents with Kerlon ripstop nylon. They also include a rating for tear strength. The Saivo features Kerlon 1800 which has an hydrostatic head of 5500mm and a tear strength of 40 lbs. 

 The Kaitum 2 GT is another excellent Hilleberg tent. It’s made from Kerlon 1200 with an HH or 5000mm and tear strength of 26.5 lbs.

A few of the people with whom I’ve done multi-month bike touring expeditions swear by their Kaitums. The tent is quite roomy (as far as tents go) especially for taller humans. The Katium has a small packed size while also boasting an extended vestibule with two entrances. You can also roll back the front portion of the vestibule to create something akin to a good old fashioned covered porch which will keep most undesirable weather away from the front door while providing a perfect place to watch a storm roll in… or out.