The first step to choosing a tent is to choose whether you need a 3 season or 4 season model.
Before we get into how to choose, let's first define what each kind of tent is and what you can expect from it.
- 2 Season Tent - You won't usually find a 2 season tent but generally they're intended only for good weather. There might be some permanent ventilation flaps on the tent that will let in rain during bad weather.
- 3 Season Tent - 3 season tents will be made for use in all season except winter and will be able to stand up to heavy rains. The ventilation flaps will have zippers on them so they can be easily closed and the tent will usually come with some guy wires (rope) that you can use to stake down the tent to make it even more secure during inclement weather. 3 season tents will be mostly made of mesh and rely on the rainfly to protect you from poor weather. The poles will be lightweight and it will come with stakes to tie down.
- 4 Season Tent - 4 season tents will be thicker and heavier than a 3 season tent. Most 4 season tents will not have ventilation flaps because they could allow snow inside. The main feature of a 4 season tent is that it will protect you from the elements rather than provide features that you can use during warmer weather. 4 season tents will usually be free standing since they can't be staked into the snow unless the stakes are frozen in. They will have almost no mesh in the walls and the poles will be thicker and heavier in order to withstand heavy winds.
Examples of 3 Season and 4 Season Tents
I attempted to find an example of a 2 season tent but I literally couldn't find a single one so for all intents, the choice is going to come down between a 3 season tent and a 4 season tent.
If you are not planning to use your tent in the winter at a location with snow on the ground, get a 3 season tent.
Final Advice for Deciding Between 3 and 4 Season Tents
For most people, a 3 season tent is the best option. It's lightweight, breathable, and will stand up to most harsh conditions you'll face during the spring, summer, and fall season.
Even for people who do some winter hiking, like through hikers on the Appalachian Trail, the small amount of snow you'll come across should be easy enough for a 3 season tent to handle as long as your sleeping bag is warm enough and you bundle up.
The only time you'd want to buy a 4 season tent is if you were planning to do dedicated winter time hiking in areas where you expect very windy weather and a lot of snow. Outside of those conditions, the extra weight and cost of a 4 season tent is usually not worth it for most people.