There are only two reasons why anyone would sleep outside in the dead of winter. You’re either a hard-core adventurist or a survivalist (or both).
When the winter months coming along camping changes for the colder. For every inch of snow and for every degree colder it gets, sleeping outside becomes more dangerous.
That’s why winter camping requires special gear.
And the most critical peice of winter equipment to invest in is a high-quality cold weather tent. Because your super-lightweight summer tent won’t cut it.
Of course, there are ways to secure shelter and stay warm even if you don’t have a cold weather tent (we’ll get to a few of those later).
But you never want to soley rely on your improvisation skills with something as critical as shelter. Because in the worst climates, cold weather tents become layer between warmth and death.
These winter tents come in all shapes and sizes to accommodate anyone no matter the budget or circumstance. The variety is vast. So many choices in fact, that deciding quickly becomes overwhelming.
That’s why I compiled this short list of excellent winter camping tents. Tents that will keep your butt cozy in the coldest temperatures imaginable.
Some are high tech, a few are more basic but they all serve the same general purpose: warmth and shelter.
Owning a cold weather tent is a major step towards being ready for anything at any time (even during the depths of winter).
Owning one is like having a mobile warming cabin even in a dark desolate winter. But the trick is picking the right one for you…
Choosing the Right Tent
It was the dead of winter and I was working with a filmmaker in the far Alaskan north on an arctic nature documentary. And let me tell you – it was freaking FRIGID out there.
Colder than I knew nature could get.
Well, the plan was to stay out there for a couple of weeks. A prospect I was altogether reluctant to get excited about.
That was until I saw his cold weather tent. The thing was huge. It had a massive vestibule, a thick waterproof shell, and a wood burning stove complete chimney.
His tent was big enough for five plus the massive amount of film gear we were lugging.
It became our home-base and was always a welcome sight after a long day in the cold.
I tell this story for two reasons: 1) to illustrate how effective these tents can be. The Arctic Oven Tent that we were using out on that freezing tundra kept us cozy as koozies.
And 2) not every tent is right for every situation.
We needed a super-warm form of shelter big enough to house us and all our equipment. We knew we weren’t going to be moving it and we had a bush plane to carry the tent/stove apparatus.
But I wouldn’t want that tent for most situations. It would be way too warm, way too big, and way too heavy for most situations. Sure, it worked for the arctic tundra, but it’s overkill for one night in Rocky Mountain National Park.
So there are a few considerations you need to take into account:
What will you be using your cold weather tent for?
If you plan on staying a month out in the coldest regions of the Yukon, you’re gonna need a big ol’ tent. However, if you’re planning a backpacking trip for a day of ice fishing, you’ll want something far smaller.
Will you be carrying or driving your tent around?
I’ll go back to the big Arctic Oven we used in Alaska – that cold weather tent required heavy equipment to move it around. There’s no conceivable way we could have carried something that heavy over any distance.
So if you intend to use your cold weather tent for vehicle camping only you’ll have no issues going BIG. But if you’re winter backpacking, keep it light and packable.
How many people and how much gear do you plan on housing in your tent?
If you’re taking your entire family, or have a ton of gear and supplies you’ll need a big tent. If you’re by yourself and practicing minimalist camping, go light because you won’t need a large one.
The Best Cold Weather Tents
These days, nearly every serious outdoor gear company boasts their own version of a cold weather tent. Which is good for you because it means you have more options. Choices for budgetary wiggle room and options for personal preferences.
But it also means there’s lots of comparisons to do. That’s why I’ve compiled this short list of the best rated cold weather tents (and pros – cons for each).
I had to start with this tent because The Artic Oven was one of the
coolest warmest tents I’ve ever been inside of. There was so much space inside. And the tent trapped SO MUCH heat we started sweating even when it was -7 degrees outside. That’s crazy good.
The tent comes in a variety of options and several sizes – and the prices vary from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.
This one’s extremely warm includes futuristic technology and is HUGE (226 square feet). It’s a four season tent and can fit ten to eleven people inside during the summer. It includes an oven, has a vestibule, and is very durable and wind resistant.
This beast weighs 110 pounds (don’t plan on carrying it anywhere). It only sleeps five to six people during winter (w/ cots and stove) and takes a while to set up. It’s also a bit of an investment.
This is a lightweight winter tent, but The ALPS Mountaineering Tasmanian 3 is still fairly heavy if you’re carrying it solo. The small dome-shaped 3 person tent is warm and its shape makes it nice and spacious.
This one is cost effective, small, and packable. It’s spacious inside, includes a large and high vestibule. It offers 14 square feet of space for cooking and storage.
Not the most durable tent in the world (could have benefited from rip-stop technology). Unfortunately, it’s fairly heavy at 8 lbs. Heavy enough to be a pain in the back on a long trip. This option is best for people with sleds or cars. Also, the tall sidewalls make it more susceptible to wind.
3 – Big Sky Chinook
Another smaller cold weather tent that’s perfect for people who won’t be lugging along tons of gear or lots of people. The Big Sky Chinook will keep you warm with its doubled walled construction to prevent condensation inside.
One word lightweight! (only 3 lbs 11 oz) making it ideal for winter backpackers. This is the one you want if you’re bugging out in the winter months.
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It comes with three lightweight aluminum poles but works fine with just two to cut down even more on weight. It has a large interior with high ceiling, easy setup, and two vestibules.
This one is small. It’s only big enough for two people. The poles are located on exterior exposing them to elements.
Mountain Hardwear makes quality outdoor equipment. And The Hardwear EV 2 is no exception.
This tent is on the forefront of cold weather tent technology. It utilizes Mountain Hardwear’s patented 3-pole Evolution Tension Arch. This is a serious piece of gear for serious winter enthusiasts (which reflects in the price tag).
A compact single wall tent, designed for extreme cold weather expeditions. It has a low-to-the-ground shape making it resistant to wind. Plus, it rocks a big vestibule for storage and cook.
It’s got a low ceiling and can feel cramped inside with two people and gear. It only comes in one color option.
It weighs in a 5 lbs 4 ozs. Which is enough to be a weighty addition to a backpack. Reportedly (according to reviews) this tent is not completely waterproof. So if it’s exposed to a torrential downpour things might get damp inside.
This ones a burly two person tent fit for almost any cold weather adventure. The Marmot Thor 2 is both small and packable. This tent is an affordable, dependable option for cold weather camping trips.
It has two doors as opposed to one, 40d Nylon Ripstop fabric (very durable), 38 square feet inside.
This one’s on the heavier side at 8 lbs 6 ozs. The fastening clips for the vestibule are prone to pop off. The front vestibule door is small and may be annoying for tall people to get in and out.
A History Brief of Tents
Shelter is necessary for survival. Our human ancestors sought shelter in forests and caves. And eventually in huts, homes, and tents. In fact, portable, packable shelters were extensively used by nomadic cultures throughout history.
The very first recorded ruins of tents were discovered in Russia. Hunter-gatherers of this region used mammoth hides to create warm, wind resistant shelters. In this way, they protected themselves from the intense Siberian weather.
Later in history, teepees, and yurts became popular. They enabled people to set up camp to hunt and gather until resources became scarce and they needed to move on.
Mobile sheltering was a lifestyle for Mongolians and Native Americans. Yurts are still an extremely popular design today. For example, you can find them in use throughout the Rocky Mountains.
The Romans were also big into tents. Not because they moved their civilization from place to place (after all, they built Rome). But their armies conquered most of Europe, parts of Africa and the Middle East. So they needed portable transportation.
They used tents everywhere. Big tents, little tents, fancy tents, whatever kind of old-school tent you can imagine. Most of their tents were fashioned from calf or goat skins.
In fact, tents have been an essential survival tool for every single war since ancient times. The French Revolution, the American Revolution, the American Civil War, WWI, WWII, and beyond.
Tents are such a useful mechanism for portable shelter they’ll likely be popular well into the future.
Today, after all those thousands of years using and refining tent technology we’ve come a long way. And cold weather tents are a perfect example: durable, warm, water resistant, and windproof.
The bottom line is tents have come a long way since the days of hunkering down under mammoth hides.
No Tent? No Problem!
Actually, that isn’t exactly accurate. If you get stuck outside in winter without a cold weather tent to take shelter inside of, you DO have a problem. One that threatens your life, in fact. But there are lots of ways to improvise in such a situation.
Build An Igloo
Tried and tested, the igloo is one of the best cold weather shelters in history. Carve a bunch of bricks of snow and start stacking.
The tough part about building an igloo is the fact that it takes a long time. If you know you’re stranded outside for the night and have all day to prepare, go for an igloo.
The snow and ice walls work very well as insulation against harsh temperatures and winds.
Dig a Snow Cave
Similar to an igloo, this concept uses snow as an insulator to keep you warm. Snow caves are nice because they are faster to dig out, and they don’t have to be very big. Just large enough for you to crawl inside of, curl up and suffer through the harsh night.
Snow caves have saved countless lives over the years. So if you ever need a quick, warm shelter in a pinch, start digging. You need to scoop out enough snow to fit inside, and then jimmy-rig a door.
(Using a large snowball, a chunk of ice, a winter jacket, rain jacket, piece of plywood, etc. works very well). The trick with the door is to make it as airtight as possible. Otherwise, all the heat you build up inside escapes and you freeze to death.
(But be careful, making your snow cave too airtight can result in suffocation. Find that balance…)
Here’s a time-lapse video of an elaborate snow cave being built.
Insulate a Summer Tent With Snow
There have been times I’ve been backpacking in the spring, totally confident it would stay warm and sunny, only to get caught in a freak blizzard.
What can you do? If you’re carrying a tent (even if it is not a cold weather tent) you can add insulation – as long as there’s snow. When you pack a couple inches of snow onto the outside of your tent, you increase that tent’s ability to hold heat.
Unfortunately, if the snow melts and your tent isn’t waterproof chances are you’re getting soaked. But if the snow is melting then it’s not all that cold out anymore. Yeah, you survived.
The Final Word
Hypothermia is a deadly killer – responsible for thousands of deaths a year. The cold weather is dangerous. (This hopefully isn’t news to you).
Sadly, that fact can get in the way of outdoor activities during the winter. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it stop you from enjoying the outdoors! You only need to make sure you’re prepared. And the first step towards preparing yourself for winter camping/survival is to get your hands on a cold weather tent.
Yes, everyone is going to need something different. But I assure you, there’s a winter tent out there with your name on it.
But be careful and do your research before you buy – not all cold weather tents are created equal. Do your research and know your needs.
Owning a cold weather tent is like owning a portable hunting lodge, cross-country skiing yurt, or warming hut. Surviving in winter weather gets a lot more difficult without a cold weather tent. If you consider yourself self-reliant, someone who’s ready for any survival situation, you need a high-quality cold weather tent.