Alpine camping in the Terra Nova Laser Photon, a one-person double wall tent with a trail weight of just 1 pound 11 ounces.
Weighing just 1.7 pounds (trail weight), the Terra Nova Laser Photon now holds the Guinness World Record for the lightest tent, specifically "the lightest two-skin tent commercially available". It's targeted for mountain marathons and adventure racers, but it's actually very suited for ultralight backpacking. My review evaluates the efficacy of the Laser Photon in relation to the previously reviewed Terra Nova Laser Competition and Hilleberg Akto and the new Terra Nova Laser Elite and Tarptent Scarp 1+. How do these ultralight double wall solo tents compare in terms of livability, weight, and value?
|2008 Terra Nova Laser Photon|
|Three-season, one-person, double-wall, non-freestanding tent with floor, one vestibule, and one side entry door|
|Tent body, fly, one aluminum hoop pole, twelve titanium stakes, pole hood, pole sack, stake sack, tent stuff sack|
|Proprietary. Inner tent is high thread count ripstop nylon, about 1 oz/yd2; fly is Watershed SL2 2000mm; floor is Waterbloc SL 4000 mm|
Poles and Stakes
|One DAC Featherlite 7001 aluminum center hoop pole, two 17.25 in (44 g) carbon fiber end struts, twelve titanium 1-gram stakes 5.25 in (13 cm) long|
Length: 87 in (220 cm)
Width at center: 36.6 in (93 cm)
Width at ends: 24.4 in (62 cm)
Height: 37.4 in (95 cm)
Length: 86.5 in (220 cm)
Width at center: 37 in (94 cm)
Width at ends: 26 in (66 cm)
Height: 35 in (89 cm)
|Very lightweight fabrics, carbon fiber end struts, strong aluminum hoop pole, one-gram titanium stakes, large vestibule, large side entry door|
|18 x 5 in (46 x 12 cm)|
|Measured weight: 1 lb 12.1 oz (0.8 kg)
Manufacturer specification: 1 lb 11.8 oz (0.79 kg)
|Measured weight: 1 lb 11.2 oz (0.77 kg)
Manufacturer specification: 1 lb 10.1 oz (0.74 kg) (excludes stuff sacks)
|Floor area: 17.4 ft2 (1.62 m2)
Vestibule area: 8.4 ft2 (0.78 m2)
Total protected area: 25.8 ft2 (2.4 m2)
Protected Area/Trail Weight Ratio
|£330 (about US$435)|
|Footprint (8.3 oz/235 g/£40, about US$53)|
Design and Features
The Terra Nova Laser Photon is a lighter version of the Laser Competition. The design and dimensions of the Competition and Photon are exactly the same. Both are a tunnel design, with a center hoop pole and end struts for support, and a large vestibule protecting the entry. The inner tent and fly are attached and pitch as a unit. The design is very similar to the Hilleberg Akto and Tarptent Scarp 1+, which will be compared with the Terra Nova tents in the Assessment section at the end of this review.
Based on measured trail weights, the Laser Photon is 6.8 ounces lighter than the Laser Competition, which previously held the Guinness World Record for lightest double-wall tent. The weight savings is achieved through the use of lighter fabrics and one-gram titanium stakes. The lightweight fabrics used in the Photon are impressive. The inner tent is a high thread count nylon, and the fly is a lighter version of silnylon; both appear to weigh about 1 ounce per square yard. Although the emphasis in the Photon is light weight, it's interesting to note that the main hoop pole is aluminum rather than carbon fiber. The cost for the weight savings is £50 (about US$70).
Views of the Terra Nova Laser Photon. Entry is from the side (top left) via a zippered door to the left of the center pole. The ends (top right) are raised by a carbon fiber strut attached to the inner tent. The rear view (bottom left) shows the tent's ground level fly, which protects the inner tent from splash back. In the top view (bottom right), the entry is at the top of the photo.
The complete tent stuffs into a small but ample lightweight stuff sack (left). The tent is "secured" with twelve of Terra Nova's new 1- gram titanium stakes (right). The stakes are 5.25 inches long and weigh 1.28 grams each.
Inside features. The entry door in the fly (top left) ties to the side; a large vestibule prevents rain from directly entering the inner tent. The five-foot wide zippered entry into the inner tent (top left and right) is huge; when unzipped, the door lays on the tent floor. Note the rear strut and large air space between the inner tent and fly, as well as the large vestibule space. The floor (bottom left) is 87 inches long and 37 inches wide at the center, which is ample for a taller person plus some gear. Each end of the tent has a mesh vent (bottom right), plus a large mesh panel at the top of the entry door.
Setup is easy and fast: stake out one end, insert the center pole, stake out the other end, and complete staking. That's the good news; those one-gram stakes are another matter. The carbon fiber stakes supplied with the Laser Competition broke easily, so Terra Nova came up with one-gram titanium stakes to replace them. Let me be the first to say that they don't work either. The first time I set up the tent I had a lot of problems with the stakes turning and releasing the guylines, then vanishing in the vegetation. I spent a lot of time on my knees finding the stakes. In my opinion, the one-gram stakes do not have enough holding power and are easily lost, so they are entirely inadequate. I replaced them with six-inch titanium shepherd hook stakes (0.22 oz/6 g each), which did a fine job of securing the tent. The tent has a total of ten attachment loops at the base of the inner tent and fly, plus four guylines (two on the center hoop plus two on the ends). This sounds complex, but four pairs of loops can be attached to single stakes, bringing the number of stakes for a secure pitch down to ten. The net weight gain from using the heavier stakes is 1.56 ounces.
Terra Nova provides twelve one-gram stakes (center) with the Laser Photon tent, which are little more than a toothpick (bottom). I replaced them with some "real" six-inch titanium stakes (top), which are still very light and provide a secure pitch. Alternatively, you can purchase the tent with Terra Nova's two-gram stakes, which are 4.75 inches long.
The interior of the Laser Photon is quite roomy for a one-person tent. Its 87-inch floor is long enough for a taller person, but headroom is limited (measured at 35 inches at the center and 15 inches at the ends). I'm six feet tall and found the tent's height acceptable both while lying down and sitting up. The floor's 37-inch width at the center provides some extra room for gear. Contributing most to the tent's roominess is its large vestibule (20 inches wide at the center) and 60-inch wide zippered door which combines the vestibule into the tent's usable space.
During my summer, fall, and winter testing I was able to use the Laser Photon under a range of conditions. The tent's tunnel shape, ten stakes (my modification, which includes four guylines), and fly to the ground design makes it extremely wind stable. It easily withstood 45 mph gusts with only minor deflection. When I endured a spring duststorm in southern Utah, I discovered a shortcoming to the version of silnylon that Terra Nova uses for the fly - dust really sticks to it, bad! Silnylon (silicone impregnated ripstop nylon) is available in different formulations, usually different ratios of silicone and polyurethane, and this one appears to be mostly silicone. Dust sticks to it like a magnet. Fortunately, the dust washes off with clear water.
Dust really sticks to the silnylon used for the Photon's fly (left); a Utah duststorm turned the fly from green to brown! I found the Photon to be very wind stable and strong enough to withstand light snow (right).
The Photon is sturdy enough to withstand a light to moderate snow -if you slap the walls of the tent frequently - but it's obviously not designed or built to support a heavy snow load. Dry snow readily slides off, but wet snow sticks to the tent (as shown), causing significant deflection. The ground level fly does a good job of keeping wind and wind-driven snow out of the tent, as well as shielding the inner tent from splash-back from heavy rain. Also, the ground level fly in combination with the nylon inner tent are very effective in retaining heat - on a cold March morning I measured the outside temperature at 33 F and the inside temperature at 50 F, a seventeen-degree difference.
The zipper on the Photon's fly (left) is not waterproof and does not have a storm flap, so water will seep through. I found the dripping inside to be minor, and it falls in the vestibule, not the inner tent. Terra Nova includes a pole hood (right) made of polyurethane coated nylon that ties on over the ridge pole, and incorporates two guylines. It weighs 3.1 ounces in its stuff sack, and is not included in the tent's weight. It's most useful for windy/rainy conditions where extra support and protection are needed. I found that sealing the seams with diluted silicone is sufficient to prevent leakage (except the zipper) for normal three-season backpacking.
While the Photon's ground level fly keeps wind and snow out, it also keeps moisture in. Translation: the tent is not very well ventilated to the outside, so condensation is a significant problem. There is a large air space between the inner tent and the fly, and good ventilation between the inner tent and fly via mesh vents at both ends and in the door, plus the door can be opened partially or entirely. Moisture readily passes out of the inner tent, but there are no vents in the fly to exhaust moisture out of the tent. Unlike the Hilleberg Akto, for example, which has a high vent on the vestibule and two end vents on the fly, the Photon does not have any vents at all on the fly, and the fly extends down to the ground. Condensation is minimal in breezy or windy conditions - in fact the ground level fly is an asset when it's windy - but on a clear, cool, calm night it's a recipe for condensation. Under such conditions I found light to moderate condensation or frost on the inside of the fly, and in rainy conditions I found heavy condensation on the inside of the fly. Fortunately, the inner tent and fly can be easily separated so the wet fly can be packed separately.
The Laser Photon can be pitched using only the fly, poles, and stakes to create a two-person floorless single wall tent weighing 20 ounces (with ten titanium shepherd hook stakes). The inside dimensions in this configuration are 102 inches long x 63.5 inches wide x 37 inches high.
Its one thing to pare out weight to achieve a world record for the lightest two-skin tent commercially available, but it can potentially conflict with functionality. The one-gram stakes created for the Photon are a good example; they are more of a novelty than something truly functional. Under tension, they easily turn and release a guyline attached to them, and their small heads disappear in the vegetation. I personally would not entrust a high end tent costing £330 (about US$435) to those toothpicks! Rather, I would opt for more secure stakes (adding 1.6 ounces, as described above), and save some weight somewhere else. The same philosophy applies to the lack of even a minimal mesh storage pocket inside and a storm flap over the zipper, which would add another ounce. And while we're at it, how about adding a high vent or two to lessen the condensation problem?
To offset the weight added from my refinements, I suggest switching to a carbon fiber hoop pole (a two-ounce savings), a C-shaped entry door into the inner tent (a one-ounce savings, and the door would tie off to the side rather than lay on the floor), and using thinner elastic and Spectra cords on the guylines (a one-ounce savings). Such refinements would make the Photon more user-friendly for ultralight backpackers.
As mentioned earlier, the Laser Photon is similar in design to several other tents. The following table provides details for comparing the tents.
|Tent||Floor Area (ft2)||Vestibule Area (ft2)||Ventilation||Trail Weight (lb)||Cost (April 2009) **|
|TN Laser Photon||17.4||8.4||None||1-11.2||£330 (approx US$435)|
|TN Laser Elite||17.4||3.0||None||1.7||£387 (US$500)|
|TN Laser Competition||17.4||8.4||None||2.1||£280 (approx. US$365|
|Hilleberg Akto||18.3||8.6||1 top vent, 2 end vents||3.1||US$420|
|Tarptent Scarp 1+ *||19.0||12.5||2 top vents, raised sidewalls||2.8||US$295|
|*The TT Scarp 1+ has two doors and two vestibules|
|**Terra Nova and Hilleberg tents are available from US dealers; cost varies|
Some highlights and observations from the comparison table are as follows:
- The Laser Elite is Terra Nova's latest model. It's the lightest tent here, but its 23-inch interior height limits its appeal mostly to adventure racers
- The Laser Competition weighs 6.8 ounces more than the Photon and costs about US$70 more
- Although it has a good reputation, the Hilleberg Akto is a bit heavy and pricey
- The Laser Photon would be a good value if it included a carbon fiber hoop pole, plus other refinements described above
- The Tarptent Scarp 1+ weighs a bit more than the Laser tents, but it has more floor space, two doors and two vestibules, more headroom, better ventilation, and costs a lot less
Overall, the Terra Nova Laser Photon tent is a mixed bag - it utilizes a very stable and roomy design, and its ultralight, but it needs several refinements to make it more user-friendly and functional for ultralight backpacking.
- Sub two-pound one-person double-wall tent
- Utilizes a tunnel design to minimize weight, and maximize interior usable space
- Inner tent and fly pitch together as a unit
- Very wind stable and storm worthy
- Very taut and has a large air space between the inner tent and fly
- Huge vestibule
- Plenty of space for one person plus gear, or one hiker plus a dog
What's Not So Good
- No high vent or end vents on the fly to exhaust moisture, so condensation is an issue
- One-gram stakes are not adequate to secure the tent
- Hoop pole is aluminum instead of carbon fiber
- No storage pocket
- No storm flap on the zipper
- Dust sticks badly to the silicone nylon fly
- Toggle and loop tieout for the vestibule door are difficult to reach
Recommendations for Improvement
- Add high vents
- Add a mesh storage pocket
- Switch to an C-shaped zipper on the entry door to save a little weight and allow the door to be tied off to the side
- Add a storm flap to protect the zipper on the fly
- Replace the one-gram stakes with more substantial and functional stakes
- Replace the aluminum hoop pole with a carbon fiber pole, or offer it as an option