As any experienced backpacker will tell you, not all tents are the same. Weight, weather resistance and structural design make certain types of tents more suitable to specific conditions than others. To really be prepared for all backcountry scenarios, you should own one of each type of tent. But if you don't want to commit to the cost of owning several tents, or if you only sleep outdoors during certain seasons, choose the tent that is best suited to your needs.
Three-season and Ultralight Tents
The typical backpacking tent is a so-called three-season tent. These tents are generally lightweight, thin-walled shelters made to provide high ventilation and shelter from the elements. The basic design is extended to ultralight designs, such as solo hiking tents and bivouac shelters, which can provide primary shelter for the lone backpacker or serve as an emergency shelter for a pair of hikers expecting fair weather. These tents are not suited to extremes of wind or cold temperatures, so they are generally used only in the spring, summer and early fall.
Alpine and Four-season Tents
A four-season tent incorporates thicker walls and a rain fly to provide advanced protection from the elements. The insulating qualities of these tents is quite remarkable, and they are an absolute necessity for camping in cold weather. Most four-season tents are designed for use in alpine environments, and their pole structure allows for high strength-to-weight ratio; these tents can stand up to a battering wind on a mountaintop with minimal maintenance. Although they are light for their strength, however, alpine tents are generally much too heavy to warrant packing for a summer hike, so most hikers and climbers dedicate these tents to cold weather outings.
Car Camping and Lodge Tents
Although they are not feasible shelters in backcountry scenarios, many hikers choose to keep a large car camping or lodge-style tent for use at dedicated campgrounds. These tents are spacious and comfortable, and many even offer options for wood-burning stoves and room divisions. If you need a large shelter for a casual, car-camping stay in the front country, consider a lodge tent.