There are many designs and variations of lightweight backpacking tent available but the major division, in more ways than one, is perhaps the pitching method: inner-first or outer-first. This sometimes provokes bemusingly heated argument in some circles and, as might be expected, it's all a fuss about nothing and is down to personal preference and experience (and sometimes skill). This debate is centred on the ability to keep the inner dry when pitching in the rain. Some people have even been subjected to verbal ridicule because of their choice of tent, in this event a short answer will suffice - exactly two words, to be accurate.
Our tent is a Terra Nova Voyager, a 2-person geodesic inner-first type. This is the only 2-person tent of recent years we have used and we can't make any direct comparisons with other designs, but we can give our view of it in relation to some key points of tent design. In any event, the benefit of any features depends on personal preference and intended usage.
In a nutshell we love it and think of it as a second home, and our original model served us flawlessly and reliably in a wide range of conditions throughout the year. We replaced it with the later 2006 model last year, which is basically the same design and has proven just as reliable and robust so far. We can see why their tents are so highly rated, and although the price is pretty high, we consider it worth every penny. We opted for this design after studying the practical criteria and picking out the following:-
Geodesic designs lend themselves well to 2-person tents because of the cross-pole: when bent into an arch that is tall enough to sit up in, the width is automatically enough for two people.
The 2006 design for our new Voyager reduces the total weight to 2.27kg. It uses 8.55mm DAC Featherlite poles and lighter materials and has a white inner with scalloped continuous pole sleeves made of non-wicking material. The doors are now side-mounted, apparently in response to requests from users - well I wish they had kept their mouths shut: the old bottom-mounted arrangement was much better. Side-hanging destroys the lateral symmetry we had with a bottom-mounted door whereby each occupant had full control of one half of the door.
A 4-season tent should be able to withstand high windspeeds and the shape will shed water and snow readily. The Voyager design and shape has never disappointed us on our snowy pitches in low to moderate snowfalls, but in heavy snowfall, the flattish front half of the roof would collect a certain amount and a full 4-pole geodesic design is better suited to such conditions.
As an inner-first tent it is more awkward to keep the inner dry when pitching in the rain, but not difficult after a little practice. We spread out the fly first, using some of the pegs if windy, then lift up the edges and unfold the inner beneath it. The poles can be slid through into the eyelets and erected while the fly covers everything. This does involve poking about with the fly draped over us, but it isn't bad and it solves the problem pretty well.
The smaller rear end of the inner is mesh while the front end has both mesh and solid doors. We found that we always ended up with the solid door completely open leaving mesh at both ends, and after a while we had the solid door professionally removed (see below). Some people have concerns about the tent being draughty in this configuration, but we find exactly the opposite: the mesh is remarkably effective at reducing the perceived airflow even with a fair breeze outside. This is easy to demonstrate when the front mesh door is unzipped, we can immediately feel the inflow of air into the tent.
Having all mesh at both ends greatly assists the ventilation while the solid walls maintain a feeling of protective comfort. Even in deep winter when boiling water in the porch we have never had any condensation in the inner, in stark contrast to the Akto I use on solo trips.
Some tents, notably from the USA, have inners made entirely of mesh, which is a very different proposition. Although an attractive idea in warm dry conditions, there is usually a potential problem with condensation dripping through from the fly, and in the chilly damp weather typical of the UK it can feel miserably cold in windblown mist.
For any tent with a double door it is worth checking that the mesh door is on the outside of the solid door. Maybe all manufacturers do this now but a few years ago there were some that put it inside, and were suitably chastised until they changed their crazy ways. Some lightweight tents now have a single split door, the bottom half solid and the top half mozzie net.
After using the new Voyager for pitches in all seasons, we found that we always had the solid door zipped right back leaving just the mesh door. It was obvious that the solid door was serving no purpose and was just redundant weight and bulk, and we had it professionally removed. After the great success with the Akto custom mod, we again entrusted the work to Scottish Mountain Gear and the work is excellent, as expected:- the inner is now lighter and much simpler.
The Voyager has a single entrance and we have never felt the slightest need for another, but some people regard two entrances as a great advantage. The only possible benefit for us might be that we could get out of one porch while the stove was going in the other, but our routines make this unnecessary. The floor and porch arrangement may have a bearing in some other designs where a single entrance would mean one person climbing over the other to get out, which is not the case with the Voyager.
The porch door can be unzipped from either top or bottom. Unzipping from the top might be useful when using the stove in the porch and shielding it from wind, as a small gap at the top ensures that gases and water vapour escape very easily, though the benefit is marginal as the wind provides good ventilation from underneath.
The pegs supplied with the tent should be scrutinised. Some recent pegs are small carbon fibre spikes with an alloy tip. Terra Nova began supplying these with their ultralight range of tents, they are extremely light but reports on their performance are not at all encouraging, and we are not surprised. We wouldn't trust them to anchor our Voyager on most trips. Using them on single-pole solo tents or tunnel designs, which rely heavily on the pegging for stability, is asking for trouble in strong winds. TN have switched to titanium pegs for at least some (or maybe all) of their tents now.
We saved some weight by replacing the original thick aluminium pegs (18g each) with thinner titanium pegs in two sizes. The set of 13 aluminium pegs weighed 234g. We now have 8 main titanium anchors (14g each) and 5 smaller ones (6g each) - total 142g, a saving of 92g and a little volume. The 6g pegs are too short and thin to rely exclusively on them but the 14g ones seem to grip firmly enough (though not as firmly as the aluminium ones - you rarely get anything for nothing!).
These are tent-shaped sheets of material that are supposed to be laid underneath the groundsheet for protection. In our experience these are completely redundant, assuming the pitch area is cleared of sharp stones and thorny twigs etc.. We have even pitched on deep heather which is a tangled mass of woody stalks with no problems, but then the Voyager has an excellent groundsheet. The thinner groundsheets of ultralight tents are undoubtedly less robust and would need more care, but if a footprint is carried, the weight saving is reduced.