Buying an Alpine Tent for Backcountry Ski Touring

A lot of the best ski touring terrain, particularly in Australia, is out of range for a comfortable day trip. This means you’ll need to commit to snow camping, and an alpine tent is one of your most essential and expensive pieces of kit. This post goes into what you should be considering when buying an alpine rated, four season tent.

Alpine Tent and Shelter Options

There’s three primary styles of tent and shelter options to consider for alpine snow camping: Bivy Bags, Single Wall tents and Double Wall tents.

A pyramid, dome and single wall tent at base camp

Bivy Bags

A bivy bag is by far the lightest, but most exposed option. They’re essentially a larger sized sleeping bag made of a lightweight shell material like Gore-tex that you put a sleeping mat and sleeping bag inside of. If it’s clear weather, many people sleep with their face exposed, but most bivy bags have the option to fully close over the head in poor weather.

Many bivy bags, like the North Face Assault, don’t have much in the way of headroom, but may have a soft plastic rod to keep it off your face or loop to tie it off on a ski. Other styles, like the Outdoor Research Helium, include a rigid tent pole over the head area for a less claustrophobic fit.

On the plus side, a bivy bag will weigh around 500g and take up almost no room in your backpack, so they’re an excellent choice for a fast and light trip in great weather or as an emergency shelter on day tours. On the down side, if you have poor weather you’ll have a very long, miserable night cramped into your bag and little to no room to store gear. Condensation is also a bigger factor given the lack of ventilation options, especially if it’s fully zipped up. A common tip is to dig a trench or snow wall to sleep in if it’s windy, or use a bivy bag to sleep under a light tarp or in a snow cave.

Single Wall Tents

Originating in the mountaineering world for their light weight and small footprints, single wall tents are usually made from a membrane fabric similar to Gore-Tex. Tents like Black Diamond’s First Light weigh in at 1.3kg for a two person tent with other styles rarely exceeding 2kg. This means you can easily carry a larger tent with plenty of space to spread out individually, or keep loads light between two.

While the weight benefits are obvious, single wall tents are less ideal if you’re expecting to be camping in wetter conditions on the approach to the alpine. This is due to the higher chance of condensation forming inside the tent, which is less of an issue in colder conditions. Some of the very lightweight fabrics used in some single wall tents are only specified as water-resistant, so pay attention to this if you do expect to use it in moister conditions.

Another potential annoyance with single wall tents is many don’t include a vestibule for gear storage. This leads to snow entering the tent more readily if it’s windy or blizzarding when opening and closing the door, and much less interior space for gear if you’re sharing a two person tent.

A pyramid tent with sleeping bay and shared kitchen

Another style of single wall tent worth considering is a pyramid tent like the Hyperlight Ultramid or Black Diamond Mega Light. Pyramid tents are often used as kitchen areas for larger groups, providing an excellent way to huddle together out of the elements on long, cold evenings. Many people also use them as tents to sleep in, as they weigh a bit more than a bivy bag, but have all the benefits of large internal space once they’re propped up with a ski pole. While this sounds flimsy, the pyramid shape does hold up remarkably well in high winds despite flapping around more than a traditional tent.

As a single wall tent more prone to condensation, especially if people are cooking inside them, pyramid tents may tend to ice up on the inside quite significantly. Another potential gripe is the steep angled walls mean the usable space is reduced inside unless you can dig out a deeper floor area to sleep in.

Double Wall Tents

Containing both an internal shell and outer fly sheet, double wall tents are the most prolific option with a multitude of styles and sizes available. Alpine-suitable double wall tents will have a strong tunnel or dome pole construction and the internal shell will be made of a light nylon fabric with minimal fly screen venting.

Double wall dome and tunnel tents in front of a pyramid tent

The main downside of a double wall tent is the additional weight, with many two person tents like the domed Mountain Hardware Trango 2 hovering around the 4kg mark. However, lightweight designs like the tunnel design of Wilderness Equipment’s Second Arrow weigh in at 2.3kg for the expedition version and 1.7kg for the ultralight model. There’s also plenty of one person double wall tents available that weigh in around 1.5kg.

A double wall tent will be far more versatile for non-snow adventures and generally provide more space and protection in moister environments.

As noted above, most alpine tents will have either a tunnel or dome pole construction, the outlier being a pyramid tent that can use your ski poles to save weight. The main consideration for Australian ski touring is the tent being able to stand up in 100kph+ wind gusts, which accompany almost every snow storm. Some alpine tents even provide for doubling up tent poles for this reason. Reputable companies often publish the results of tests they’ve run on their tents for this purpose, like Mont have done for their Epoch tent in the video below.

Tent Pole Designs

Another consideration is the tent’s ability to stay standing under heavy snow loading. While this is less of an issue in Australia due to generally lower snow volumes from storms, Dome tents often claim superiority in this regard, and it’s worth having a tent you could use overseas in heavier snow environments.

Snow wall protecting a tent in 100kph+ winds

It’s worth noting that both wind and snow can be managed to varying degrees by building snow walls around the tent for wind protection and then scheduling time throughout the night to check snow loading if you are in a big storm – primarily to prevent asphyxiation if the tent is completely covered by snow.

Can I use my 3 season tent in the alpine?

The simple answer is yes, but with some key considerations:

  • Is your pole construction designed to stay standing in very strong winds? Most three season tents will use lighter poles and less rigid designs that might blow flat, snap poles or rip the fabric, leaving you at extreme risk in bad alpine conditions.
  • Is there a lot of fly mesh that can’t be zipped closed? This isn’t a big problem if there’s no wind, but you might find a lot of snow works its way into the tent if it is.

People who do choose to use 3 season tents will often camp below the tree line to provide some extra protection from these issues.

What else should I consider when buying an alpine tent?

Some things worth keeping in mind include:

  • Well known brands that publish details about their construction and testing methods are more likely to build better tents. Sure, you can buy a much cheaper knock-off tent design on eBay or Alibaba, but are the materials used robust, the fabric and stitching strong and have they done any testing at all?
  • What are the manufacturer’s warranty terms?
  • How much room do you like having inside a tent? If you’re sharing a tent with two people’s gear, it may be worth buying a three person tent for a marginal weight increase.
  • Some brands have ultralight versions of their alpine tents, should I buy that one? If weight is a key consideration, then absolutely. Just bear in mind that the materials are going to be less durable in extreme conditions, so you may find you need to replace it faster than one that’s rated for expeditions.
  • You’ll usually need to buy your own snow-stakes to securely peg your tent down, which typically weigh around 50g per stake. Using ski poles, skis and ice blocks or snow-filled plastic bags is the best way to tension guy ropes whilst saving weight.
  • Review sites like Outdoor Gear Lab are great to understand what the latest and greatest gear is available.
  • Second hand tents are absolutely fine if you know what you’re after. Look for ones that are relatively new, as glues and waterproofing can deteriorate over time, especially if the tent hasn’t been stored in a dry place. Gumtree and the Gear Freak Facebook group are great places to look for second hand tents.

What do I use?

I tend to ski tour all winter in Australia, and love being out there in a good blizzard to score fresh tracks when the weather clears. I also tend to join larger groups but don’t always have a consistent partner to share gear with, and I’m obsessed with reducing my pack weight. After a lot of experimenting, I settled on a 2kg two person single wall tent from Black Diamond as my go-to tent. It’s light enough to carry myself and very roomy if I’m sleeping solo, but versatile enough to share if needed. I’ll also use a bivy or pyramid tent if I’m confident the weather will be good and I want to save a bit of weight.

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