Full disclosure: Terra Nova sent me this tent on long-term loan for review on my blog. I agreed on the basis that I would return it after the testing period was over. I’ve received no payments or other benefits for this.
For the last 12 months I’ve been road-testing a relatively new tent from veteran British tent-maker Terra Nova. The Starlite range is aimed squarely at bikepackers and cycle tourists and comes in 1-, 2- and 3-berth options.
I’ve been using the 2-berth version – the Starlite 2 – on all my cycling, hiking and road trips since April 2018, and with summer approaching fast, it’s about time for a detailed write-up after a year of thorough and varied testing. You tend to form a close relationship with your ‘mobile home’ on extended bike trips. So how did we get on?
The Terra Nova Starlite 2: In Context
British tent maker Terra Nova has a long track record of producing highly regarded, award-winning, ultralight tents. The Voyager, a heavy-duty all-rounder, has been a favourite among long-distance cycle tourists from the UK for over two decades. The 1-berth Laser Comp was the first sub-1kg tent in its class when it launched 15 years ago and remains an ultralight backpackers’ classic today. So why launch something new?
Well, with the explosion of bikepacking, its associated packing style, and a trend towards touring with lighter loads, I think Terra Nova saw an opportunity for a tent tailored to this niche.
Thus, the Starlite series aims to strike a balance between the low weight of the Laser Comp and the liveability of the Voyager, paying specific attention to the packing considerations of the bikepacker while retaining the excellent all-weather performance this British tent maker is known for.
Have they succeeded? I think so – as long as you can live with the relatively fiddly process of pitching a tunnel tent. But whether or not you’ll buy one will also be a question of where and when you plan to use it. More on that later…
Out of the box, the appeal of the Starlite 2 to bikepackers is instantly clear. It’s short – the poles are just 29cm long when collapsed – and the storage bag is not a flimsy tube of ultralight fly material but a tough canvas sack with multiple rows of webbing loops.
In other words, it’s off-the-shelf ready to strap to your handlebars, hang off the back of your saddle, slide into a seatpack, or throw into a small pannier.
Pitching for the first time, I recognised the signature features of Terra Nova tents: the all-in-one pitching style, the underfloor reinforcement straps taking the strain off the floor material, the colour-coded poles and sleeves, and the wild-camping friendly colours of pine-needle green flysheet and bright yellow inner.
Working my way through the pitch, I was reassured by the clear attention to detail and the seemingly sturdy materials and build. It felt like a quality product. (And I’ve spent a lot of nights in a lot of tents!)
This is a somewhat specialised tent. As noted above, accepted wisdom in bikepacking and cycle touring circles is that freestanding tents are generally more versatile than tents that require staking out. As a tunnel tent, the Starlite is in the latter camp, requiring a minimum of 7 stakes to properly erect, and all 11 for the most robust pitch.
Terra Nova’s aim with the Starlite, however, is not maximum global versatility (that’s what the Voyager is for) but top performance for its intended type of user: bikepackers and ultralight cycle tourists from the UK.
As a rule of thumb, a tent’s design reflects its place of origin; thus British tents tend towards all-weather performance, prioritising waterproofing and stability in changeable weather and on soft, damp ground.
Happily, these design priorities remain relevant in many other temperate-zone locations you might consider for overseas touring.
If, on the other hand, you’re setting out across the tropics or the desert and want a freestanding mesh inner, the Starlite probably won’t be for you.
Tunnel tents can sometimes feel a little claustrophobic as there’s only so much headroom such a structure can offer, especially with the smallest models.
The Starlite 2 strikes a good balance in this respect. It offers more headspace than the ultra-minimal shelters favoured by some bikepackers, though it doesn’t quite compete with the cavernous Hubba Hubba NX (86cm vs 100cm of headroom, and one entrance/porch instead of two). It sounds like a small point, but it is nice to be able to sit upright inside your tent while you’re changing your clothes in the evening or pulling on layers in the morning. The Starlite 2 just manages this for me (I’m 5 foot 11).
The Starlite 2 has a generous porch (or awning) area for gear storage. If you buy the optional footprint (ie: floor protector), this will extend to cover the whole porch area. Because it has quite a long floor (220cm), there’s a little space for additional gear (or particularly tall people!) in the slightly tapered foot end too, even if both berths are occupied.
While the most minimally-minded of solo bikepackers will go straight for the 1-berth version of the Starlite, I’ve always felt that taking a 2-berth tent on solo trips pays off every night in comfort and convenience. I’ll notice this much more than the extra weight, because pedalling is just pedalling, but I want my camps to be a time to relax and enjoy.
Pitching The Starlite 2
I initially found the pitching process to be more fiddly than the various free-standing and wedge-shaped tents I’ve previously lived in. In my circumstances this would have been true of any tunnel tent, a design style in which the structure is provided as much by the stakes and guylines as by the poles.
After a few pitches, of course, it became second nature, and I feel the extra faffing at the end of the day is compensated for by the extra stability, weather resistance and reduced overall weight of the design.
In terms of venting, it’s possible to adjust the awning zippers to allow air in beneath a ribbed hood, or to roll up the door completely in fine weather, either way allowing the half-mesh door of the inner tent to breathe. At the foot end, another mesh panel and an external hooded vent allow a reasonable through-flow of air. I wouldn’t want to spend a whole day in a Starlite in the heat of summer, but I don’t expect many riders would have that in mind anyway.
One thing I did notice during multi-day pitches – and this is fairly typical of ultralight fabrics – was the tendency of the flysheet to sag a little when wet and then to contract again when dry. On a couple of occasions when the tent was completely soaked, this resulted in some contact (and therefore dripping) between the inner and outer layers.
To combat this, the adjustable cinch straps by the pole attachment points allow the fly to be tightened or slackened, and together with the adjustable guylines I found I could easily tweak my pitch to compensate.
Only a prolonged period of real-world use can demonstrate how a product deals with being used over time and in the full range of conditions it’s designed for.
(That’s why I’ll never review a piece of gear unless I’ve used it on a long-term basis.)
Given that the Starlite is pitched (sorry) as a three-season tent, its priorities should be to keep the occupant(s) dry in a downpour and on sodden ground, while also venting condensation in cool, damp conditions, and allowing adequate air through on hot summer nights. This is actually quite a tall order.
I had a particularly good opportunity to test the Starlite’s performance in the extremes of weather during a week-long trail maintenance camp in the Greater Caucasus range of northern Georgia, where I had the tent pitched in the same spot for a week. The weather was typical of summers in this mountain region: hot, sunny days and cold nights (ie: big temperature gradients), with sudden and violent lightning storms rolling through almost every day.
Even when it felt like all the water and electricity in the known universe was being dumped upon our camp, the Starlite didn’t leak a drop. With a hydrostatic head rating of 5000/6000mm for the fly and floor fabric respectively, the waterproof materials here are – on paper – among the most heavy-duty of tents in this class (compare to 1200/3000mm for the Hubba NX range).
And it barely flinched during a particularly vicious hailstorm which literally punched holes in the flysheet of my friend’s ageing Marmot next door.
In short (and always assuming you choose a good site and pitch correctly), I’m pleased to report typical solid Terra Nova performance on the all-weather front.
Weight, Size & Packability
The Starlite touts itself as a bikepackers’ tent, and this seems to be mainly about portability when packed down. Terra Nova have achieved this by shortening the collapsible pole sections down to 29cm each and packing the result into a sack about the size and shape of a summer synthetic sleeping bag.
(It’s arguable that the increased number of pole sections introduces more potential points of failure. My experience is that aluminium poles fail either because of general fatigue over years of use, or because someone clumsy trips over or treads on them – not because a telescopic-section design is inherently weak.)
Having spent years strapping tents to the top of my rear rack, I’ve found the packed-down Starlite no longer occupies the role of that annoyingly unwieldy piece of luggage I have to find a home for, fitting into a small pannier as happily as on my handlebar harness or in my seatpack. This is actually really nice.
And when weighed against other tents favoured by bikepackers and cycle tourists – disciplines in which packed weight/size and liveability are often equally important – the Starlite 2 fares impressively, rated by the manufacturer at 1.53kg off the shelf (compare with 1.76kg for the Hubba Hubba NX), with the solo Starlite 1 just 1.12kg.
The Terra Nova Starlite 2: In Summary
The Terra Nova Starlite 2 is a premium-quality 2-berth tunnel tent which is generously liveable and will stand up to the worst temperate-zone weather you’d ever choose to ride through. It also happens to be extremely light and practically sized for the various ways you might pack it on a bikepacking rig.
At a list price of £595, it’s hardly cheap, and therefore it’s likely to be a purchase many will spend a long time pondering. Whether – when it comes to opening your wallet – the selling point of packability would tip the balance in the Starlite’s favour is for you to judge, but I will say that, after a year of road-testing, it’s made such a difference to my bikepacking routine that I’m surprisingly reluctant to send it back.