Cold camping means sleeping in a four-season tent without a heat source. What makes a four-season structure is a sturdy pole system and tough fabric that can withstand snow and wind. Choose a tent with lots of little extras such as side pockets and a ceiling hammock for gear storage, a center hook to dangle your light from, colour-coded clips and poles, secondary guy lines for tightening the tent down in harsh conditions and a light-colour fabric that allows in more light and brightens up your morning after a long, cold night.
Good ventilation is also a key factor. A separate fly over the tent body is important. Breathable fabrics are better at holding in warmth and conversely keeping out cold. Mesh will release vapour from your breath, which otherwise condenses over the inner walls. Once the tent warms up, usually in the morning, the ice will melt and rain down on you and your gear. The more ventilation, the more control over frost. Still, cover your gear before bed and store a small brush inside so you can sweep the ice crystals off the tent walls. Double doors also vent better than single. Keep the doors perpendicular to the prevailing winds. Door zippers are the first place to gain moisture and let the cool wind in.
Tents come in all shapes and sizes, all of which have their merits. First, there’s the cabin style. This is extremely roomy but strictly for campground use only. Then there’s the A-frame or “pup tent.” It’s a classic design that gives you lots of head room and works well for large groups (but make sure it’s well-staked during heavy winds). There’s also the oddball tunnel tent. Its hoop design is characteristic to the old covered wagon, giving you a light, compact tent with maximum floor space. Some winter campers love this style and others despise it. My choice is the geodesic dome. Its crossing pole structure makes it free-standing (perfect for pitching on top of snow or ice) and quite stable in a wind storm. It also gives you the best space to weight ratio.
Four-season tents, for the most part, will use heavier fabric floors with higher polyurethane (PU) coating levels for greater waterproofness. According to Jim Stevens, Product Manager for Eureka Canada, “Floor fabrics will be a 70 Denier (D) nylon, 75D polyester or 150D polyester. The PU coating levels will start around 3000mm (indicates fabric can withstand water pressure equal to three metres) with some higher. These coatings are typically higher than many three-season tents as four-season tents are often pitched on snow. Three-season tents can use floor coatings starting around 1200mm. If you are an avid camper having the chance to be outdoors twenty-five plus nights a season, then you will probably focus on a tent with higher floor coatings.”
Jim also adds important information about stoves and vestibules:
“One other major difference on a four-season fly sheet is the size of the vestibule [door covered porch]. Four-season tents have larger vestibules with one of the primary uses being a cooking area. This is a contentious issue as it is always recommended that use of any open flame [stoves] be a safe distance from the tents. Tents sold in Canada must meet Canadian fire-retardant standards, meaning they self-extinguish when accidentally contacting a fire source, but the fabrics will melt if in contact with an open flame. Experienced winter campers, alpinists, will experience situations where they must use stoves in a vestibule but will take every precaution to avoid any mishap.”
My preference over cold tenting or hot tenting during the winter months depends greatly on temperature, conditions and distance. If it’s extremely cold and I’m not focused on how far I travel, then I’ll go with hauling and pitching a prospector style hot tent. (Who wouldn’t?) But if winter conditions are generally mild and I want to make greater distances every day, then the cold tent is the way to go.